April 01, 1991 12:00 PM

by Alice Adams

Caroline Carter, “eminently a realist, a practical, sensible woman,” and her third husband, Ralph (Caroline is his fourth wife), are back home in San Francisco after five years abroad. But to judge by this absorbing if ultimately schematic novel, maybe they should have stayed away longer.

Things are going on with Caroline’s five daughters that Caroline—distant, non-intrusive Caroline—would doubtless prefer not to know about. For example, she would not like to know about the troubled marriage of eldest daughter Sage, a ceramicist who has not yet found success, “a manic depressive on a very short cycle” and the wife of beautiful, faithless Noel, a carpenter.

Caroline would not want to know that the self-involved Fiona, who can’t cook but owns the trendiest restaurant in town, is about to begin an affair with Roland Gallo. the married lawyer-politico who in pre-Noel days was Sage’s lover.

She wouldn’t want to know that Jill, a yuppie lawyer, has a sideline she calls the Game: turning $1.000-a-night tricks. And Caroline also wouldn’t like to know about Jill’s affair with Sage’s husband, Noel.

Liza and youngest daughter Portia, who describes herself as the “non-achieving sister.” aren’t in such great shape either.

Like so many Alice Adams heroines. Caroline’s daughters are hungry for change: They want to change jobs, mates, locations—their lives. How well and wisely they do it is the subject of this novel.

Adams repeatedly uses the smallness of San Francisco as a metaphor for her characters’ braided lives. Jill, buying a sexy peignoir at I. Magnin’s to please Noel, runs into Sage in the elevator. Portia, at lunch with Ralph, looks out the window and sees Jill and Noel pass by, clearly up to no good.

Adams seems to be using the sisters to make a statement about the profligate ’80s and, come to think of it. using the ’80s to make a statement about the sisters. Before the ’87 market crash, for instance. Fiona and Jill are riding high professionally and personally; post-crash. Fiona loses her lover, and Jill is almost killed in a car accident.

It’s all a bit pat. And Adams’s wonderfully trenchant observations—she writes of a character who “like many profoundly vulgar people is a stickler for what he calls ‘taste’ “—can’t quite keep the novel up to the high standards she has set for herself in her previous fiction. (Knopf. $22)

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