A WOMAN OF VALOR, the Bible tells us, has a price above rubies, but A Woman of Valor falls more in the rhinestone range. Leora Baruch, born in 1939 into a wealthly Jewish family resident in Egypt for two years, sees the Baruch fortunes and her beloved father's spirits broken by rising Arab nationalism. Things get bad when Israel gains independence in 1948, but her father decides it will all blow over. He doesn't pull out until the aftermath of the '56 war, when the suddenly penniless family flees to Israel. Father's death of a broken heart soon follows, and Leora, bitter and lusting for revenge, naturally becomes a hard-bitten Isralei intelligence agent, star operative of a crack anit-terrorist unit. Her path crosses and recrosses that of the dashing (but very married) Dan Yaacobi, a fellow member of her secret service, and Leora falls hard for him. (This is the sort of book where people read each other's intermost souls by a glance into burning or smoldering or glinting eyes.) Their subsequent collaboration includes tracking Cherev, a notorious Arab terrorist, and making love on one reportedly unforgettable occasion. When Dan dies in the line of duty, Leora's hatred boils over into the relentless pursuit of Cherev to the predictable, bloody denouement.

If Topol had concentrated on the caper, the book might have begun to move, but he chooses instead to compose a character study of Leora, even more unlikely a person than the denizens of most spy thrillers. Neither his stodgy writing nor her undimensional psyche holds one's interest when the bullets aren't flying. And the book is sprinkled with odd inconsistencies. Would aristocratic Jews in Alexandria, that most cosmopolitan of Mediterranean cities, really have spoken Arabic among themselves rather than the infinitely more prestigious French? If so why do they find it at all difficult to learn Hebrew, a closely related language? And why into Yiddishisms do they sometimes lapse? As Leora's beloved father certainly would never have said, oy vay is mir.