September 18, 1989 12:00 PM

by Fern Kupfer

Sharon Burke’s best friend, Barbara Glasser, is beautiful and long legged and sexy and makes great-selling medical equipment for hospitals. When Barbara announces that she’s leaving her husband, David, for another man, Sharon is dismayed by the frivolity of it all. “Leaving him with the house, the furniture, the antique clocks, the gerbils. She was packing up a Volkswagen van and taking the children to find a new life in California…. ‘I feel flattened living with David,’ Barbara explains. ‘You know, when you see an EEG on a brain-dead person and the bleeps are all flattened out? Emotionally, that’s how I feel with David.’ ”

Sharon doesn’t think not loving someone is sufficient reason to break up a marriage. Besides, she’s very fond of David and concerned how the breakup will affect the Glassers’ two young daughters. Despite such reservations, despite the fact that her own husband, Jesse, a university physicist, thinks Barbara an irresponsible flibbertigibbet, Sharon caves in to Barbara’s request to drive with her to California.

A cross-country trip always offers novelistic possibilities—characters in close quarters learn about themselves and each other. Hilma Wolitzer’s wonderful Hearts shows the form used to best advantage. But Kupfer, author of Before and After Zachariah, a nonfiction account of her family’s decision to institutionalize their retarded son, doesn’t do much with it, so the journey in No Regrets is just a device.

Unsurprisingly the two women have a blowup en route that sounds ripped from the pages of a soap opera script, and they experience epiphanies that might have used similar source material. The characterizations are equally unfocused. Kupfer has given Sharon a job as an Heloise-like columnist for the University of Illinois extension service and sprinkles the book with cleaning tips, but to what end is never made clear. (The cleaning tips are reminiscent of the recipes Nora Ephron dropped into Heartburn.)

Kupfer is a keen observer of small moments in a marriage—Sharon’s realization that as she and Jesse are sitting in bed arguing about Barbara and David’s troubled relationship, they are watching an episode of the old Bob Newhart Show in which Bob and Suzanne Pleshette argue about a couple’s troubled relationship. She also has a good ear for the conversations and peculiar concerns of small children. “I think I have too much spit,” Sharon’s daughter announces worriedly one day. “I have spit even when I’m not eating anything. It’s just there in my mouth. Sitting there.” In the end, though, No Regrets seems to be doing the same thing. Sitting there. (Viking, $18.95)

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