Marianne Lindsay is 28 years old and to all outward appearances in enviable circumstances. Her husband, Junior Ledwell Lindsay, is rich, handsome and renowned around New Orleans, outside of which they live on an ample estate; she has all the money she could possibly want and all the time in which to spend it. But matters are neither as tranquil nor as happy as they appear; Junior loves her but is having an affair anyway, she has been unable to conceive a child, and worst of all she has the sense that her life is a one-way street to nowhere.

To her mother, Marianne's settled existence has "a wonderfully reassuring predictability," but to Marianne herself it seems a trap that threatens to stifle whatever creativity and energy she may possess. So she leaves a note for Junior, hops aboard a bus to Memphis, then buys a train ticket to New York. Not merely is she running away from Junior, but she's "running away to Bobby." He is her cousin, Bobby Desmond, who is five years older than she and who ever since childhood has been "the only person who saw into me, who gave any sign that what I felt inside existed and might not be utterly foolish."

He demonstrates that quality almost immediately upon her arrival. He's directing an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's great play "The Sea Gull," and without a moment's hesitation hires her as assistant stage manager even though she hasn't any theatrical experience; Bobby believes she can do it, and that's good enough for him. What Marianne wants is a "second life," and that is precisely what Bobby proposes to give her.

From Louisiana to Broadway: Overnight, Marianne leaves the purposeless world of the Junior League and enters the dynamic, unpredictable one of the theater. It is a world that Gloria Norris seems to know well and that she describes, in this first novel, with both sympathy and dispassion. It is also a world that Bobby does not know all that more intimately than does Marianne. He'd been working as a stockbroker when one of his clients, a noted actress named Ruth Warner, fell for him and encouraged his theatrical interests; now, with a bankroll provided by a wealthy young Texan, Bobby is trying to direct "The Sea Gull" as Chekhov might have staged it on a plantation in the American Deep South.

The production never does come off -- these amateurs from the South are easy prey for the sharks of show biz -- but before it fails Norris paints several fine portraits. She understands the thin line between reality and fantasy that actors tread; Warner wavers between alcoholic self-pity and bombastic egotism while the male star of the production, George Grimsby, is never offstage even when he's doing his morning toilet. Whether on stage or off, Norris' theatrical scenes have snap and crackle.

The relationship between Marianne and Bobby, on the other hand, is far more ambiguous and is portrayed less sure-handedly. The principal difficulty may lie with Bobby, who simply is not as charismatic as Norris means him to be. In the childhood scenes, which she presents in flashbacks, he is charming, attentive and affectionate, and it's easy to see how the impressionable young Marianne could have developed so deep an affection for him. But as Marianne herself acknowledges, as an adult he is irresponsible and selfish. "You make people love you and depend on you to change their lives," she tells him, "and then you pick up and run out on them. Don't you know it's evil to raise people's hopes and then desert them?"

Eventually we learn that this behavior is caused by a deep psychological wound that is reopened each time Bobby enters an intense relationship with a woman. This provides an explanation for what he does, but not for Marianne's willingness to suffer through his comings and goings; her longing for "all the safe days of my childhood" somehow does not seem reason enough for her pursuit of him, for her obsessive fascination with a man who is really not especially fascinating.

The truth is that Marianne is far more interesting than Bobby. She has spunk and grit -- Bobby's claim that she's short on self-confidence is simply untrue -- and her cool self-scrutiny is appealing. She makes a real career for herself in New York and then in California; unlike Bobby, who's always running away, her flight finds a clear direction and brings her to something more substantial than the empty life she left behind. At the end she is filled with a sense of loss, but she has actually gained a great deal; it is not entirely clear whether Norris intends us to realize this, but it seems to me the real point of this intelligent, provocative novel.