When not driven into shallows by a sermonizing overcast, this is a generally appealing story about the liberation of a 34-year-old unmarried woman from a constricting environment and family. Mary Martha Myles has lived all her life within the smothering, everlastingly loving arms of the Faith Holiness Congregation -- an aggressively rigid fundamentalist group whose Marbury, Maryland, church was founded by Mary's mother. For 14 years, under the oppressive scrutiny of a miserably married sister, Mary cared for her invalid mother until her death and was then slipped into the post of church secretary. Occasionally Mary fantasizes another life (especially one with loving sex), a life like that of her insouciant brother Warren (""'If God ever came to Marbury it would be only to take a crap""), who long ago left Marbury for California after a public humiliation for one of his sexual escapades. But ""God in his wisdom knew that Warren would get away and Mary would not."" Then, however, come the deaths of Warren and his wife -- so Warren's 13-year-old son Jake arrives to live with Mary. And soon Mary is a free spirit -- thanks to Jake (who, once over his grief, is bright, funny, and loving); thanks to wise-cracking friend Liz; and thanks to a glorious, shuddering affair with white-suited, bear-sized Murray, a visiting preacher (and Harold Hill-style con man). True, there's a surfeit of peripheral homilies here, while Jake, Liz, and Mary are often too good and wise to be real. And the resemblance to Mary Gordon's Final Payments is considerable. But Naylor offers her own warm, humorous domestic recognitions and a gentle soft-focus view of tent-and-piano religion, with its ""fragrance not only of clover and sawdust but of tired men and women, of mildewed hymnals, of dust from the road . . . she knew it meant home."" The refrain is forgettable, but some of the verses will linger on.