THE PERFECT SONYA by Beverly Lowry Viking. 242 pp. $16.95

REARED UP ON its hind legs, it loomed over her, beyond feet and inches, a dreamlike presence . . ." Beverly Lowry's eccentric novel opens with this image of a bear, a threat not dispelled until the last page, when the bear is finally seen as a stellar nonentity: "Ursa Major looking on . . . Constellations were a myth, a child's primitive game,like fill-in-the-dots."

Between these symbolic bookends a deceptively simple story takes place in which matter-of-fact realism alternates with metaphor and dream.

Pauline Terry is an actress, a southerner transplanted to New York. She is married and in love with her husband, moderately successful in her art and anticipating further success. But when she goes home to Texas because her father is dying the pace of the story changes. Lurchingly, unexpectedly, facts about her and about her father are revealed and Pauline's own actions become erratic and jerky. The prose, always precise, begins to depict dreams, visions, uncontrolled natural events; the narrative leaps across years; Pauline has a nervous breakdown; finally, at the end of the book, she cures herself.

A great deal is demanded of the reader by such changes of pace and skids through time. Yet one of the pleasures of this kind of fiction is precisely the challenge of filling in the gaps, solving the author's puzzles. What is this book really about? Is Beverly Lowry writing about coming of age? the dispelling of ghosts? modern woman's loss of herself? Her heroine leads the reader on a slippery path:

"There were three versions of the same dream, all of which she had catalogued:

1. The dream of slow falling: no finish, the endless fall.

2. The dream of impossible rescue; she (turning time backward) saves him.

3. The dream beyond: no options.

(We are not sure who the "him" is who might be saved. The nightmare is open-ended.) DREAM: again and again, the book reverts to it. Exact physical description, which is among the author's strengths, continually segues into dream, or even presages nightmare. Pauline's husband's physicality is immediate: "In his Spanish black boots and thick black wool sweater, tape-striped shirt, creased jeans, and perfect haircut -- down his neck, across his face -- black hair, dark eyes, that hoarse, whispery voice -- {she} had never seen anything like Michael Casproselli in her life." The latent threat in this sharp description is later realised in dream: "That night she had a dream about the two of them, sitting up in bed, side by side, each with a gun. The rule was, when one moved, the other could shoot."

The major images in the novel are those of the bear and of water. Water is constant in Pauline's life, a dream-material. Since acting isn't a full-time occupation, she has the unlikely job of underwater swimmer at "The Shipwreck Inn"; while she swims, reality recedes into a threatening fantasy. "From inside the tank, the world was a blur. The men could see her clearly enough, but to her they were like watercolor movement, a head, burning cigarette, a raised glass. They merged, one into the next." Water pursues and threatens to inundate; Pauline is caught with a lover in a disastrous, fascinating river-flood. "The rain fell without compromise. The world all around her was black . . ."

A final dreamlike element is supplied by the book's title, The Perfect Sonya: Sonya is the Chekhov character whom Pauline has been told she plays so well. Sonya's speeches of endurance and her hope of heaven are visionary and surreal; Pauline thinks about them and quotes them. But at book's end she decides to go beyond the Sonya portrayal to other roles, finally deciding to reject the world of dream, bear, and drowning: "she released her knees and, facing the black windows, pushshed her head down deep in her pillow and prayed for no more dreams . . . She felt proud of herself. Really proud."

"No watery grave for you," an ex-lover tells her. Beverly Lowry's fast-paced novel covers all three thematic possibilities: coming of age, ghosts, loss. But ultimately it's a woman's story of what may happen when we dead awaken. :: Diana O'Hehir is the author of a novel, "I Wish This War Were Over," and two books of poems. She teaches at Mills College.