A SOUTHERN FAMILY By Gail Godwin Morrow. 540 pp. $l8.95

THE GOOD NEWS is that in this, her seventh novel, Gail Godwin returns to the setting and themes of A Mother and Two Daughters, the book that won her a wide popular following and established her among the important American novelists of the postwar period. The better news is that A Southern Family is, if possible, an even richer and more rewarding book than A Mother and Two Daughters. As for the bad news, the best news is that there isn't any: though A Southern Family may be too long and leisurely for some tastes, or too unabashedly Victorian in style and construction for others, to my mind it is old-fashioned fiction of the most serious and exemplary kind -- a book that creates a dense, populous world, and draws the reader into it as surely as if it were his own.

Comparisons with A Mother and Two Daughters must not be exaggerated, for there are important differences between the two books, but neither can they be minimized. Both novels are set in Mountain City, Godwin's thinly disguised recreation of that North Carolina town already well known in fiction, Asheville, and are much concerned with the manners of the city's society. Both are about families in which a sudden and unexpected death forces the survivors to reexamine, and in some instances redirect, their lives. Both are about middle-class women trying to reconcile traditional expectations with the new territory opened for exploration by feminism. Both are long, discursive, unhurried novels in which no character is constantly at center stage; instead the various principals appear and disappear with precisely the imprecision of life itself.

As to the differences between the two novels, the central one, from which all the others derive, is that the person who dies in A Southern Family is young. Leonard Strickland, who suffers a coronary as A Mother and Two Daughters opens, is in his mid-60s; though his death is grievously mourned, it is with the reassuring knowledge that he lived a good and happy life. But Theo Quick is only 28 when he dies in A Southern Family, and the circumstances are anything except comforting; as best the police can determine, he murdered the young nurse with whom he had been having romantic difficulties, and then committed suicide.

So though a death once again disturbs the superficial tranquility of middle-class life, the sense of deprivation is entirely different: this is a loss not of a fulfilled life but of unfulfilled potential. After she learns of Theo's death, his half-sister Clare sees "foreclosed possibilities . . . beginning to take shape": "Clare saw scenes that would now never take place, people who could never, or never again, get together. And certain wrongs could never be righted, certain reparations -- however keenly intended -- could not be made." Or, as she says later, "We keep torturing ourselves with all the things we left unsaid, or only partially said. It's as though that person's life has become a question addressed to us, and now we want to answer it more than ever because he no longer can."

This sense of questions unanswered and tensions unresolved is all the more urgent because the Quick family is an unhappy one. Clare's mother's second marriage -- Clare's father died, not heroically, in World War II -- has declined into icy acrimony; her surviving half-brother, Rafe, 26 years old, is still loafing his way through school and drinks too much; Theo has left a 3-year-old son, Jason, and a former wife, Snow, from whom his family is estranged; Clare herself, though successful as a writer of middle-class novels of manners and happily in residence with an older man -- she is 42 -- is deeply troubled by the fear that her books too tidily tie up the loose ends of life's harsh reality.

Now these persistent old troubles are compounded by a new one: each member of the family feels that he or she had been insufficiently alert to Theo's distress, that his pleas for attention were brushed aside or unheeded, that he would not have been driven to murder and suicide had only someone in the family found the time to give him whatever it was he needed. As Clare tells her closest friend: "I paid so little attention to him. God, Julia, this is a terrible thing to admit, but whole months of my life went by without my thinking of him . . .What's really awful is, I've thought about Theo more since he's been dead than I ever did when he was alive. It's like he had to die to get my complete attention. Only, my complete attention can't do him the least bit of good now."

But as Julia gently suggests, it can do Clare herself quite a lot of good. Like the other members of the family, she is drawn by recollections of Theo and regret over opportunities now forever lost to examine his life anew and, in so doing, to reconsider her own. Godwin is not passing out epiphanies, real or imagined, in this novel but she does permit her characters to look more deeply into themselves than they had been accustomed to doing, and to find things there that they can use. Without putting a sentimental twist on it, it can be said that Theo's death is not mere waste, that he lives on in the hearts of the survivors and also in the conduct of their lives.

THIS IS NOT to say, though, that A Southern Family is a novel about death. Unlike the trendier novelists of the day, Godwin is anything but death-haunted; in this novel as in A Mother and Two Daughters, she regards death, which she accepts without histrionics, as an occasion for renewal of life. It is the foundation upon which the novel is constructed; for all the sorrow that permeates the book, the prevailing mood is one of acceptance and, in the end, something approximating exaltation.

Of the other business with which Godwin is preoccupied, the most important and interesting has to do with the intricacies of social and familial structure. The contentious, quarreling Quicks are a microcosm not merely of Mountain City or of the South, but of America, composed as they are of conflicting social elements and aspiring as they do to the capture of that chimera, the American dream. Ralph Quick, the father, is a mountain man who came back from World War II and told a newspaper reporter: "I hope to meet my ideal woman and marry her and maybe have a couple of nice kids, and, when I've made my pile, build us all a dream house on top of a mountain with a view of the town where I was born and raised." So why, now that he has the wife and the kids and the house, isn't he happy?

Much of the explanation lies in class, the secret we Americans prefer to keep stowed away in the closet. Ralph is a mountain man -- as Rafe remarks, "I'm one generation removed from a redneck" -- and Lily is gentility of a sort, and the twain never quite manage to meet. A marriage that began in mutual passion dissolves into recrimination as the partners gradually come to realize that they have little in common except that faded passion, two children -- one now dead -- and the long years they've put in together. Nor does it help matters that something in Ralph can't quite deny his roots: the driveway to the dream house is lined with junked construction materials and the carport with junked automobiles, as though Ralph were deliberately flaunting his hillbilly past.

AN EVEN MORE flagrant and unsettling reminder of how close the family is to hardscrabble is Theo's marriage to Snow Mullins. Snow (that's what it was doing the day in May when she was born) is mountain through and through, and not about to shed an ounce of it. She is a tough nut to crack: "There was a restiveness about her and, at the same time, an irritable resignation. In form and feature she was much finer than either of her sisters, but she lacked Evelyn's sweet, self-respecting serenity and Sue's forceful vitality. She seemed permanently offended by something but not cowed by it: only determined to maintain a languid separateness from it all."

Certainly she is not cowed by the folks in the house on the hill. At her divorce from Theo she had conceded custody to him and set up housekeeping with another man, but she and the entire Mullins clan -- the Snopeses, not yet arrived in Jefferson -- show up for the funeral, much perturbing the Quicks, and afterwards she demands custody for herself. She wins it in a bitter hearing, thus not merely placing the sole Quick grandchild in a mountain home, in Granny Squirrel of all places, but also forcing Lily and Ralph to deal with her, which is to say with Ralph's ignoble past, on a regular basis. It is a victory that underscores the flimsiness of American social structure; in a sense, many of us are only a generation removed from humble origins.

This insecurity is reflected in the internal tensions of the Quick family. They are at once a close unit and a deeply divided federation; Snow describes Theo as "intent on pleasing and escaping them, both at the same time," and the same is true of his siblings and his parents. It explains why Clare flees to New York, where she now lives, yet is possessed by "the dismal sensation of never having left home . . . . where she would always be thirteen or fourteen, trapped inside the decisions Lily had made, and subject to the whims and tyrannies of Ralph." But then families are like that; as Godwin well knows, though she does not belabor the point, happy families all alike, and so too are unhappy ones.

Of course it matters, too, that the Quicks are Southerners, and that they are Americans -- but then there is so much in this novel that matters, so much that provokes and touches the reader. Suffice it to say that A Southern Family is an ambitious book that entirely fulfills its ambitions; not merely is it psychologically acute, it is dense with closely observed social and physical detail that in every instance is exactly right. Clare, speaking of "the kind of fiction I was trying to write," clearly speaks for Godwin herself: "deep-breathing, reflective, and with that patience for detail I admired in those medieval stone-carvers who would lavish their skills on the lowliest gargoyle simply because . . . that was their job for the day, and every day's work was done for the glory of God." In A Southern Family, Gail Godwin has done precisely that.