"YOU HAVEN'T READ The Waterfall? You haven't read The Ice Age? You haven't read The Realms of Gold?" "No, I'm going to," I've said and meant, but as it turns out The Middle Ground is my first Margaret Drabble book. I suspect it is not her most accomplished, but the characters and the story make the rasons for her popularity very clear. She records the lives of sophisticated London women who have eschewed with contempt the docile secondary roles designed for them by a traditional society, and her books must provide a kind of companionship, even ratification, for women on both sides of the Atlantic who dropped the old mores and took up the new, for better and for worse.

Kate Armstrong is the heroine of The Middle Ground, an energetic, scrappy, good-natured, forward-thrusting woman now 40 and suddenly stalled. "Her implacable progress has been halted, a link has been broken, and the past no longer seems to make sense, for if it did, how would it have left her here, in this peculiar draughty open space?" We are brought back to look at a childhood that was tatty, joyless, lower middle-class, with a mother and father who verge on the grotesque and might have been subjects for a Diane Arbus photograph. The metropolitan sewage bank was the feature of their neighborhood.

But with English pluck Kate butts her way free. "She must have sensed, she now thinks, that the easiest way of out the mistake and embarrrassments of a lower-middle-class life style was not upwards into the middle classes, but out as it were sideways, into a kind of comfortable uncompetitive Bohemia." She is certainly culturally broadened, moves into journalism and becomes a smashing success writing candidly about women's issues even before the new wave of feminism.

Kate has the full complement of today's experiences: marriage, children, divorce, lovers, abortion and because of her wide-open, non-judgmental nature and possible a childhood predilection for the sewage bank, a host of trying friends, many of them seamy, mostof them spongers. With one exception, Kate's good friend Hugo, the men are awful, the husband a possibly gifted painter, disabled by a weak character, and the long-term lover, Ted, a calculating, chilly, selfish man whose attractions for Kate are bewildering, the more so because he is the husband of her best friend, Evelyn. This does not seriously trouble Kate's conscience, a boom of the new mores. By the terms of the old mores she would have slept with him and been wracked. And yet people don't seem more cheerful as a consequence of this happy dispensation, either in the story or in the world.

The narrator reflecting on Kate says, "Adultery is in itself farcical, and there was a lot of it around in those days, for she and most of her friends were in their early thirties, many of them tied to their spouses by small children, not yet ready to leave and set up house again, and equally unwilling to resign themselves to a life of bad-tempered fidelity; in theory, few of them disapproved of adultery, few of them had embarked on marriage with much hope of survival, most of them professed to believe in sexual freedom, honesty, self-expression -- yet, like kate, they found themselves dodging out of back doors, hiding letters, making phone calls from call-boxes, spying and being spied upon. Of course, these affairs caused a good deal of genuiine suffering and jealousy, but they were also comic, if regarded in the right light, or what Kate then took to be the right light: 'how strange it is,' Kate remarked to Hugo at one point, 'that one can feel that loving somebody is the most right and proper thing in one's life, and yet feel simultaneously that it's an offence, a crime, a treachery.'" This seems to be lip-service, a reflection of the moment which never returns seriously to trouble her.

After Ted in his callous way leaves Kate for somebody else, she throws herself into a series of afairs with truly terrible men, the worst sort of clingers and compainers, until her teenage son says, "Mum, why don't you just tell them all to leave you alone?"

This book is about Kate, her flagging, and her recovery which is a sort of happy ending. And it is also about the people in her life, principally Evelyn, who is a more orderly, restrained version of Kate. Evelyn is a social worker of great dedication to clients and institutions of the most depressing order, and it is through the daily rounds of these two women that we see a seedy London and an outdated class-ridden society and a dismal working class that spawns the violent punk life.

Kate, Evelyn, Ted, Hugo are painfully alive to social inequities, informed about the writched in Iran, Cambodia, Ethopia, the East End, and as citizens in their public lives they are as hard-working, responsible and honest as they can manage. These are estimable qualities with which the reader may feel pleased to associate herself or himself. Then there is an easy elision to find the same honesty, the same responsibility in their private lives, notwithstanding the pathology, the dreary spirits that abound. Evelyn's two children [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE.] The healthier of the two walks about the house with open sissors, and cuts her fingernails until her fingers bleed. And yet Evelyn as social worker visiting an infants' school is represented as being altogether wiser in the ways of raring children than are some narrow-minded members of the lower orders. On what evidence? Kate on one occasion expresses exasperation with "the children's awful friends," and on another is delighted that her young son has gone off on holiday with two girls. aWhat are the implications of this delight? And at the end of the book, when her spirits are really getting restored she says, very upbeat now, "Well, the next generation will have to do better. I pin my faith on the next generation."

If Margaret Drabble has not faced some of the contradictions in this new open style of living, neither have we, the people who live it. She is an interesting, observant recorder of this style, although this book has too long a prologue. The action does not begin until page 80, and it isn't really until the last hundred pages that she hits her stride as a storyteller.

Hugo is Kate's nicest, most thoughtful friend, and he muses, "I seem in the last week to have been thinking thoughts that I always used to dismiss as extremely uninteresting when other people claimed to think them: namely, that modern life is in some mysterious way too fragmented to be comprehensible . . . and that modern conciousness is so burdened with its own past that it has worked itself into a state of paralysis." Neither Hugo nor Kate seems to think there is anything to do to reduce the framentation in one's private life.