TENDING TO VIRGINIA

By Jill McCorkle

Algonquin Books. 312 pp. $15.95

The heroine of "Tending to Virginia" is, in her own words, "barefoot and pregnant" throughout the novel. Virginia Suzanne, a k a Ginny Sue, has returned to her grandmother's house in North Carolina to have her baby under the watchful gazes of a bevy of eccentric female relations. Their collective reconstruction of family memories while "tending to Virginia" comprises Jill McCorkle's engaging third novel.

As the dog days of Ginny Sue's pregnancy drag on, she moves emotionally away from her husband and draws closer to her vibrant and nutty aunt, mother, cousin and grandmother. A male family member describing these women says, "These Pearson girls ... Cry at the drop of a hat, happy, sad, monthlies or no reason at all." Eventually her entire psychic world is peopled by quirky family tales and her own memories.

The relationship between Ginny Sue and her cousin Cindy is both intense and compelling. Cindy is a tart-tongued cutie who "could make Audrey Hepburn feel fat." Ginny Sue, the "good" girl who went away to college, "wishes she could name her baby Latoya Montreal Canada Ballard if she wanted to, because Cindy could."

Yet Cindy's bawdy bravado cannot hide her romanticized attachment to her dead father. She is dependent on the approval of men, on her Friday nights at the Ramada Inn happy hour, her Jane Fonda workouts and her blue toenail polish. The true story of her neurotic father's life and death is one of the most interesting mysteries to unfold in this novel.

Meanwhile, Ginny Sue's artistic creation mirrors her emotional approach to life. She is always painting something -- a wall in the nursery, a Kennedy rocker, a stretched canvas -- and she is always wondering what is underneath all the old layers of color. Her paintings represent her compulsive faith in representing reality, no matter how unesthetic. One of her murals has "spiky hair on the camel's hump because that's how it really is, not soft like a stuffed one but sharp and coarse, a thin bony face with bared teeth."

Ginny Sue's paintings of green hearts and magenta-beaked vultures also work as metaphors for the ways she and her female relatives individualize their own stories. Ultimately, each must strip back layers of distorted memory to uncover the submerged family mystery of Cindy's father and understand each other and the malaise that haunts Ginny Sue throughout the novel.

McCorkle's writing style is often painterly. She sketches Ginny Sue's memories in fine, visually acute language, as in this description: "Her hair was pulled back and she was fanning herself with one of those oriental fans like they used to have at the dime store and she was arranging those dolls on a card table out front. Men were playing horseshoes under a large pecan tree. That's how {Ginny Sue} painted Cutty's, from memory, the large black woman arranging those dolls, a horseshoe in midpitch, a pale summer sky, the bare dusty dirt beneath the pecan tree, a blue Mercedes parked on the corner ..."

When McCorkle writes in the highly metaphorical style common to much southern speech, she is right on target. Less consistently successful is her habit of shifting between present time and the remembered past. McCorkle's use of key phrases or words to signal the advent of memory becomes predictable, and her reliance on flashback has the occasional effect of blunting the dramatic impact of the present. So much of the book is set in the past that it is easy to lose one's place in the present-tense plot.

Still, McCorkle lets the words of the different women echo for the reader as they do for Ginny Sue, for whom "their voices, their lives and words and stories are so clear, so familiar as if there have been no changes at all." Like many Southern women telling stories on front porches, McCorkle's characters are at times long-winded, but it's worth the wait when the telling is this good.

The reviewer is a writer living in Philadelphia.