April 15, 1985 12:00 PM

by Alice Hoffman

By turns heartbreaking and heartwarming, this is a focused, intimate, lovely novel, most of whose concerns swirl about the pain and joys of motherhood. It has two protagonists. One is Rae, who’s 24, a Los Angeles secretary—her lover of seven years, a bitter, overambitious movie company gofer, is about to leave her just as she learns she is pregnant by him. The other is Lila, who’s in her 40s, and married to a man devoted to her. She is a reader of tea leaves, an avocation whose fraudulence she acknowledges, though she still finds herself believing in it. When the women meet, Rae’s pregnancy arouses in Lila memories of her only child, a daughter she put up for adoption. As Rae prepares fitfully to have her baby, Lila tries to retrieve hers, even though she had given up her daughter nearly 30 years before. Hoffman, whose previous writing includes the novel White Horses and the screenplay for Independence Day, gracefully interweaves the women’s stories. Both are themselves estranged from their mothers. Both cherish, perhaps as a fantasy, the “three gifts” of maternal love that Lila tries to will into a cake she bakes for Rae: “A cool hand to test for fevers, a kiss with the power to chase away nightmares, a heart that can tell when it’s time to let go.” Hoffman, who is herself married and the mother of a 2-year-old son, obviously understands how wonderful it is to be a mother, and how terrible. She gives her male characters, who are for the most part peripheral, substance and depth. And she writes throughout in the same lyrical, evocative prose that opens the novel: “It was earthquake weather and everyone knew it. As the temperature hovered near one hundred degrees the days melted together until it was no longer possible to tell the difference between a Thursday and a Friday. Coyotes in the canyons panicked; they followed the scent of chlorine into backyards, and some of them drowned in swimming pools edged with blue Italian tiles. In Hollywood the tap water bubbled as it came out of the faucets; ice cubes dissolved in the palm of your hand. It was a time when everything you once suspected might go wrong suddenly did.” (Putnam, $15.95)

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