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Southern eccentrics worthy of Off-Broadway

Tending to Virginia, by Jill McCorkle. North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 312 pp. $15.95. North Carolina-born and -bred writers are putting their state on the publishing map these days. First we had Gail Godwin's masterful exploration of down-home relationships in ``A Southern Family'' (New York: William Morrow. $18.95. 540 pp.). Now along comes Jill McCorkle's equally well-wrought tableau of country life and kinfolk in the land of fried apple pies and ham dumplings.

``Tending to Virginia'' is a distinctly regional work that brims over with the cadence of small-town conversations and events. It is the 29-year-old author's third novel and confirms her growing talent for turning out original characters and tuning in to witty dialogue and repartee.

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The ``Virginia'' of the title is Ginny Sue Turner Ballard, age 28 and approaching the end of a difficult first pregnancy. Although she's read ``a crock of Spock,'' she isn't sure how she or her husband truly feel about the expected baby. As the summer sun heats up and she prepares for a move to Richmond, Ginny Sue begins to get homesick for familiar surroundings.

So off she goes one steamy afternoon to Saxapaw, to Gram's house - except that Gram's old house has been razed to make way for a Piggly Wiggly supermarket, and Gram now lives in a modern duplex. When Ginny Sue becomes ill and is confined to bed for a week, the Turner womenfolk turn up, one by one, to ``tend'' to her and to visit with one another.

They represent three generations, spanning a century of memories and aspirations. There's lovable grandmother Emily and outrageous great-aunt Lena, both drifting in and out of dotty senility in their fluffy robes and Laz-y-Boys; there's Hannah, Ginny Sue's plodding, soft-spoken mother, and Hannah's sister, Madge, who's lived too long with the memory of having shot her insane husband; finally, there's cousin Cindy, twice-divorced and still cruising.

It's a pretty eccentric collection - the stuff of largely forgettable soap operas. But in McCorkle's capable hands, these multi-dimensional characters put on a show worthy of an Off-Broadway original.

The questions they argue over and pick at are both universal and intimate: Will our dependent babes grow up to be indifferent adults? Should our lives always take the expected course? How can we hold on to and also let go of what we hold dearest? How do we know when love is forever?

The author cues on an impressive range of dramatic devices, from dreamlike flashbacks that segue into present-day conversations, to cathartic guffaws and Yuppie-bashing asides. Her climactic third act is staged on a tornado-tossed, stormy afternoon - ``True Confessions in the Twilight Zone,'' as cousin Cindy puts it - and as long-held secrets are divulged, the Turner women draw closer together than ever.

The occasionally abrasive language and contemporary atmospherics of ``Tending to Virginia'' wouldn't have been found in so-called ``genteel'' Southern fiction a few decades ago, but this is nevertheless a gentle, hopeful book.

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For such a young writer, McCorkle has a heart wise beyond her years.

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