FOR A NEWCOMER -- like myself -- to Alice Adams' fiction, which has been highly praised, rich Rewards is a puzzle. How can a novel combine so much to admire with so much to object to, so much skill with so much that is undistinquished?

Daphne, a divorcee escaping from a destructive English lover, comes alone from Boston to San Francisco, where the only person she knows is her old school friend Agatha. Her flight is a retreat into the quiet life, conforted by what she sees as the "extreme localness" of the city. But she cannot escape the past. She sees in a newspaper a disturbing reference to her lost lover of 20 years back in Paris -- Jean-Paul, now a famous left-wing economist; later she finds that he is coming to lecture at Berkeley. "Everywhere is dangerous."

Particularly danerous is the Houston family, friends of Agatha's, who become "for me, the Californians": sexy Royce and his nervy wife Ruth and their two grown children, Whitey and Caroline. Whitey is sinster, alcoholic and menacing; Caroline, who lives in a loft and makes "sculptures in wool," is his potential victim. Our heroine becomes observer and confidante as all four Houstons, Agatha, all apart in violence and alienation. At first she is over-involved, but as her own horizons widen, and the Houstons each go their own weird ways, she becomes free of them and free to seek out the only man she has ever loved, Jean-Paul.

Daphne is an interior decorator by trade, and the domestic setting of her new friends are obsessively described. Her thoughts about details of form and decor, often symbolic, are balanced by a preoccupation with her own inner, mental coloration: "Like many people of my generation and my sort of education . . . my friends and I did a lot of emotional temperature-taking, so to speak. We were always very interested in how we were."

Daphne's generation is that of people in their early forties, and her age is very important. The decades though which she has lived are repeatedly evoked and characterized. She notices the "mid-Seventies opulence" of silk and velvet clothes worn at the Houston's party, and thinks that she herself is a "Seventies person" -- "temporarily asexual, earning too much money." As she moves nearer to her reunion with the socialist Jean-Paul, her own profession begins to seem "somehow evil, one more adjunct to a basically crazy system." It is time for radical change, for opening out and for optimism. Making love, she and Jean-Paul find, is better "after forty," and another advantage of age is that "when you're really happy you know you are."

So far so good. Daphne says her favorite boodk is Howards End , and one can see the relevance of this information. A strong family atmosphere in both books influences and alters outsiders. And the pattern of Rich Rewards -- the way in which the closed worlds of Daphne and Agatha, on one hand, and the Houstons on the other, meet and mesh and go on, changed, is pleasing. What is disappointingly bad is the actual writing. No on in his right mind would complain of a novel being written lightly, but this one seems often written carelessly. Sentences beginning with "Well . . . " or "Actually . . . " give the book a conversational feel. And as one does in conversation, the author repeats herself. Daphne shares her creator's easy garrulousness: "It had seemed to me that too much of my life had been taken up in conversation, not all of it constructive." Daphne has a literary bent, and her "intuitive flashes" too are made much of. But the banality of most of her insights about life and behavior do not merit the importance they seem to be given.

The other main problem springs from the "outsider" position of Daphne in relation to the action. In order for her -- and us -- to follow the desparate dramas of the Houstons, the author has to manufacture a series of often artificial-seeming visits, telephone calls, summonses and surprise encounters, which suggest the episodic construction of a soap opera. There is also a lot of useless linking material about driving and parking cars and going up in elevators, etc., of a kind that provides wordless continuity on film, but blunts written narrative. A friend of the "sculptress in wool" puts his finger on it exactly when he says of the Houstons: "Jesus God, one crazy family. You all could be a series on TV." Which may perhaps be their proper destiny; in which case tghese complaints will turn out to have been recommendations.