October 29, 1984 12:00 PM

by Alice Adams

Soon after this disappointing novel begins, we find Megan, Lavinia, Peg and Cathy at Radcliffe during World War II. “Did you ever read those really old books about girls’ boarding schools? Grace Harlow or someone?” Cathy asks Megan. “Anyway, there were always four girls. One beautiful and rich and wicked, and one big and fat and jolly…I think one was poor and virtuous and the other one was very smart.” That pretty much sums up the main characters in this big novel by a noted San Francisco short-story writer (To See You Again). The main theme, stated in the title, is alluded to more than once. Megan muses at a dinner party, “Are some men put off by extremes of intelligence or even attractiveness in women—put off by superior women?” She becomes a super literary agent in New York. Lavinia marries for money and social position; Peg weds and moves to Midland, Texas, where she has four children. Cathy becomes an economist and falls in love with a priest. Megan’s friend Janet has a husband who becomes a rich and famous playwright. It is he who says, “You superior women have a real problem for yourselves, don’t you. Just any old guy won’t do…What you need is a hero.” There is one brilliant, funny scene at a Prettyware party in Midland, when Peg is trying to see if she can face people again after a breakdown, but too much of this book seems perfunctory—dutifully listed plot information that the author thinks the reader ought to have. There are other problems. It is the wicked Lavinia who realizes that the characters are “four friends who possibly never really liked each other.” Even the author doesn’t seem to like them very much, so the reader may find them disagreeable, too. You read this novel mentally casting the movie version (ready, Shirley?). There is also much period detail that women over 50 or so will recognize as authentic. But the story is rarely moving, and the ending, with two of the women running a refuge for the homeless, mostly women, in Georgia, seems particularly unlikely. (Knopf, $16.95)

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