With each succeeding novel ( Dreams of Sleep ; Rich in Love ), Humphreys has demonstrated a remarkable talent for creating appealing characters in domestic situations that reveal life's inherent ironies. Again set in Charleston, S.C., her new novel is witty, intelligent, psychologically acute and captivating. In the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, balding bachelor Rob Wyatt, 35, assesses his damaged expectations--an unrequited love for his partner's wife, Louise Camden; lack of interest in the practice of law--and decides to quit his job and coast for a while in a downwardly mobile life style. When Louise asks him to help 19-year-old waif Billie Poe find her way out of a strange marriage, Rob begins an emotional odyssey that will lead him to the truths about Louise, his parents' marriage, the secret that haunts his black friend Albert Smalls and, eventually, himself. Humphreys relates her story in graceful, pithy prose, unerring in tone and emphasis, full of wise and surprising insights: ``The creatures Rob liked best were those whose existence was marginal. . . . For that reason he liked pelicans, he liked waitresses.'' Her characterization of Rob is complex and nuanced; revealing the origin of his angst, an incident when at age 13 he was forced to betray his mother, Humphrey conveys Rob's social unease, his habithabit or hobby? it's more than a hobby, it's a compulsion of bird watching and his obsession with Louise as elements of a fully dimensional portrait. The other characters--including gamine Billie, with a tragicomic history; maverick, golden girl Louise; Rob's eccentric mother and doom-obsessed father-- are palpably real. Unobtrusively delineating the social fabric of Charleston, the narrative culminates in the fireman's fair, where the community mingles and Rob watches his past and future collide. Though solidly anchored in the realities of existence, the narrative offers the possibilities of happiness and hope. Readers' hearts will soar. 50,000 first printing; major ad/promo;author tour. (May) .