No temptation is greater for readers of overseas bestsellers than trying to analyze an entire country through what its people read. With the Israeli City of Many Days , the temptation is too great to resist, for, like its homeland, this novel is surface tough but mushy underneath.

Winner of the inelegantly named Prime Minister's Creativity Award, City is in one sense a historical novel, taking us through some harsh decades in Jerusalem's past, from the early years of the 20the century to the beginnings of the fight for Israel's independence. The protagonist is one Sara Amarillo, a Sephardic Jew who describes herself as "one part intuition, one part curiosity, two parts mischief." To put it as baldly as possible, her story, despite some minor angst, ir really nothing more than "A Tree Grows in Jerusalem," the honest-to-gosh story of a young girl - a nurse, no less - growing to womanhood and awakening to life against the backdrop of the emerging state of Israel. Phooey.

Not helping things much is the author's prose style, which tends toward atmospheric writing of a precious and delicate sort. Attempts are made to liven things up with assorted deaths and killings, but even these seem flabby and ultimately dull. (Doubleday, $7.95)

Kenneth Turan