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Quirky and impressive first novel

THE SUNDAY WIFE

By Cassandra King

Hyperion, $23.95, 389 pp

Reviewed by SUSAN FERNANDEZ

Cassandra King, who was born in Alabama and has taught English and writing at the college level, has written an impressive first novel. The fact that she is the wife of Pat Conroy, author of Prince of Tides and other bestsellers, may draw interest to this work, but King's own talent sustains it.

A cryptic opening scene sets the stage for The Sunday Wife. A sympathetic friend presses keys to a beach trailer into Dean Lynch's hand, telling her, "Go, go to Grayton Beach. No one will look for you there." After two pages that describe the protagonist's flight to a remote beach community in the Florida Panhandle _ from the scenic drive down Highway 98 to the powdery white sand of the Panhandle _ Lynch begins to tell us how and why she got there. It is a brilliant way to start a novel.

Lynch, a preacher's wife for 20 years, never really fit in with the Methodist congregations to which she and her husband, Ben, were accountable. She came from modest, even redneck, beginnings. After her parents died when she was eight, she was in and out of foster homes. Ben, by contrast, was privileged. He was handsome. He was charming. He was also ambitious, and he tried to reshape her into a model preacher's wife. The lessons never really took hold, thanks partly to Dean's strong spirit but also partly to Ben's manipulative nature. Rigid and controlling, he never missed an opportunity to remind Dean that he had saved her from her past.

Enter Augusta Holderfield, an exotic beauty whose flamboyance appeals to Dean. Their friendship blossoms, and through Augusta, Dean meets people who will change her life dramatically. One of them is Celeste, a Tarot card reader of eastern European origins, who will be the one to put the keys to her beach place into Dean's hands on the day she escapes.

As Dean's independence from Ben evolves, a musical talent that has lain dormant emerges. Her family had been musicians; at one time they had a bluegrass band that played professionally. All that is left is a hammered dulcimer that Dean's grandmother has handed down to her. Augusta and her friends encourage Dean to play for them, and soon the impromptu performances become paid gigs at local venues. Not only does this bring in some extra money; it also gives Dean some self-confidence. She will need it when tragedy strikes and her life unravels.

The characters of The Sunday Wife are quirky and well drawn. King keeps them just this side of unbelievable. Even gypsy-born Celeste never lapses into a stereotype.

Move over, Mr. Conroy.

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