By Judy Goldman

Morrow. 274 pp. $24

The rub of Jewish culture and belief against the rigid mores of the American South is a good, complicated subject, one that has attracted writers as various as Gertrude Stein, Jean Toomer, Lillian Hellman and Walker Percy. In Judy Goldman's first novel, Thea McKee, a middle-aged radio host in Charlotte, uncovers the history of her Jewish family in the small-town South.

One of the mysteries she seeks to solve concerns her parents' wedding: Her beautiful mother, Mollie, once flew into an uncharacteristic rage when Thea tried on a hidden-away wedding gown. Thea's childhood was marked by her mother's battles with deep, sleepy depressions, struggles Thea has come to connect with the mysteries of her Jewish past. She also comes to connect her present-day migraines with her puzzlement about that past. Why did her mother favor Thea while her father doted on her younger sister? What pulled her mother so deep into withdrawal?

When an aunt finds a bundle of letters from Mollie's mother, Thea hurries to have them translated from the Yiddish, despite her sister Mickey's advice that the correspondence might better go unread. The translator delivers one letter at a time--and despite the predictability of that narrative striptease (and the predictability of Mickey's fight against cancer), "The Slow Way Back" is something of a page-turner.

The letters, describing the life of a Jewish immigrant who finds herself in a small town in South Carolina, are the novel's richest elements in terms of both language and story. They are brief interludes in the present action, but a reader waits for them the way Thea does, one eye on the mailbox. Goldman is full of empathy for all her characters, especially Thea, who as a radio advice-dispenser is expected to have stores of empathy for her listeners.

Though Goldman is a poet, her language here is rather flat and workaday. She is interested in a simple, clear story, not in pushing the structural or philosophical concerns of the American novel. The book's themes are personal and familial; though the narrative deals with a rich history, it looks back through a tightly focused lens. A reader alert to the repeated mention of Thea's grandmother's black servants may well anticipate that they will emerge from the shadows, but Goldman makes no further link among Jews, African Americans and the South's other outsiders.

Of course, those other outsiders are not the focus here--and heaven knows this novel doesn't need another Miss Daisy to drive around town--but the absence of even a passing acknowledgment by Thea that there might be some connection points to the narrowness of her concerns. That narrowness is most disturbing (hence, most interesting) when Thea confronts, or doesn't confront, her Jewish identity. Married to a gentile, and nonobservant herself, she has since childhood been keenly interested in the social implications of her Jewishness. Her mother worked hard to make sure that the family "belonged. They were insiders. Not like the eleven other Jewish families, who kept to themselves and were definitely outsiders." After her marriage, Thea briefly joined a synagogue, but "all she felt was impatience. And guilt. . . . She also felt annoyed. Because even if she did stop going to services, she could never get rid of her Jewishness."

She remembers viewing her Jewishness as "just another personal trait--like hair that was too fine, or shyness--a personal characteristic she'd be better off without, but nothing that ever caused any serious problems." The reader anticipates the resolution of these most human feelings, but the plot twist that brings this novel to a climax actually introduces a whole new question, one that leaves Thea further than ever from her Jewish identity, one that furthermore uncovers a frightening new event in her parents' marriage.

The questions raised by the letters are so serious that the novel's tidy ending is a brisk sweep under the narrative rug. Nonetheless, the final scene of "The Slow Way Back," in which Thea hears the first prayer she ever learned in synagogue, does allow for the possibility of her healing. It is one of those endings, in fact, that open up a whole new story, one with the potential to deepen the themes of this novel. It highlights Goldman's strengths as empathetic observer and may even suggest the new paths her fiction might take.