Picks and Pans Review: The Sunday Wife

updated 09/09/2002 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/09/2002 01:00AM

By Cassandra King
Beach book of the week

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Life is miserable for Dean Lynch, but childhood was so much worse that she tells herself she doesn't mind the contempt of her husband, Ben, an arrogant Methodist minister in a tidy Florida panhandle town.

Change comes achingly slowly for Dean, but when it does it's a delight to see this trampled-down flower begin to bloom. Her first stumbling steps toward reinventing herself—visiting a fortune teller, for instance—come only at the prodding of her best friend. But as Dean begins to look outside her home and establish closer relationships with her fellow townspeople—such as a gay couple heedless of the community's disapproval of their plan to get married—her confidence grows. Could there be more in store for her than a role as best supporting wife? King keeps the pace surprisingly fast-moving with a style full of tension and quiet dread, as if terrible events wait to spring off the next page.

Like her husband, The Prince of Tides author Pat Conroy, King has a tendency both to overdo Southern quirkiness and to lean on stock characters: King's gaggle of disapproving church ladies, with ideas as rigid as their oversprayed coiffures, are often too shrill to be believed. But Dean's paralyzing insecurity will resonate with anyone who has struggled for acceptance. As slice-of-life stories go, this is an extraordinarily generous one: rich, dense and satisfying. (Hyperion, $23.95)

Bottom Line: Sunday best

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