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Hester’s Liberated Daughter : PEARL <i> by Tabitha King (New American Library: $18.95; 336 pp.) : </i>

<i> Simon is a writer and critic living in Cambridge, Ma</i>

Remember Pearl? The sunny, winsome daughter of Hawthorne’s outcast heroine, Hester Prynne? She’s grown up now, and novelists of many persuasions are considering her fate. Just recently John Updike brought her to life in his fictional “S.” Now Tabitha King, the author of “Small World,” “Caretakers” and “The Trap,” finds a place for her in the modern world--in her new novel, “Pearl.”

This Pearl, too, is the daughter of an outcast. Her mother, Elizabeth, born and bred in a small town in Maine, fled from her family for reasons we are not told and had an affair with a black man. Pearl was the result of that liaison, and Elizabeth raised her alone, in Key West, as far from Maine as she was able to get. Only when she was dying did Elizabeth seek a reconciliation with her mother, and there seemed to be no animosity on the older woman’s part. “Did you forget that I love you?” she asked Elizabeth, puzzling Pearl a bit.

Pearl, despite her being racially mixed and illegitimate, seems to have had a relatively charmed life. Her mother remarried, and Norris Dickenson is everything Pearl might have hoped for in a father. She was sent away to college and earned a degree as a librarian. She did have a bad marriage, which she endured for seven years but managed to emerge stronger and wiser.

We meet her when she is 35, newly arrived in Maine to claim her inheritance from her maternal grandmother: a house, some money and--at last--roots. She easily buys out the owner of a diner and, superb southern cook that she is, makes an instant success of her new enterprise.

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It seems to make no difference that she is half-black, and one wonders, now and then, why King bothered with this device. King is surely not commenting on encounters between black and white culture; Pearl is the only black for miles around and her neighbors take to her with enthusiasm. King does give Pearl a black half-brother, Dickenson’s son Bobby, but even Pearl notices that he is a stereotype, and his troubles (he is a Vietnam veteran with physical and emotional scars) do not enter into the plot. In fact, nothing much enters into this plot except an improbably sexual set-up that keeps Pearl occupied day and night.

Although King takes pains to let us know that Pearl is a liberated woman (Pearl calls God “She”), she decides to present her with a choice of two stock-character lovers: David, the erratic, bisexual, urbane and oh-so-handsome poet; and Reuben, the down-to-earth, solid auto mechanic. Whom will Pearl choose?

She doesn’t. For much of the book, Pearl carries on with both. First David, at his place; then Reuben, at hers. Or first Reuben, in a berry patch; and then David again. Although everyone knows everything about everyone in this small town, Pearl manages to keep the quality of her relationships a mystery to most of the town folk, and surely to David and Reuben (who both think she is merely befriending the other) until almost the end of the book. And even then, the choice is taken out of her hands by King.

King creates the inhabitants of the Maine town with considerable affection. She likes gossipy old Walter; she even feels sympathy for his timid, nervous daughter, Jean. She understands what drives Karen, Reuben’s nubile teen-aged daughter, to sex and drugs.

Pearl is an endearing character, but King has chosen to immerse her in romance rather than reality. When she is not sexually aroused, she is exhausted, as we can well understand. She is never called upon to make any difficult decisions or to encounter painful consequences. Even when her two lovers realize what has been going on, they end up embracing each other. David’s descent into madness, we realize, is nothing of Pearl’s doing; it had its seeds in events that occurred long before.

In the end, Pearl is a predictable tale of a gutsy woman who finds the complications of her life wonderfully untangled, so that she can find love and live happily ever after. If you believe in happily ever after, then this is a book for you.


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