HILMA WOLITZER, author of the much admired Ending and In the Flesh as well as a number of excellent books for young readers, has been steadily moving toward the achievement of Hearts . Hearts is a bigger, more fully conceived and realized novel than her first two. It is (let me say it right at the start) a fictional success, a novel so rich in well-realized characters (Linda, the 26-year-old widow; her 13-year-old stepdaughter Robin; a fellow-traveler, Wolfie), so full of brutally humorous events (Linda's aborted abortion when a firebomb is planted by Right-to-Lifers in a Des Moines clinic, and a turned-about "Tupperware Party") that it raises ordinary people and everyday occurrences to a new height. It is about these commonplaces, it is also about love and loneliness, pity and instinct, gallantry between strangers and adolescent suffering.

Linda is one of those rare characters in fiction who reveals herself so slowly that the reader has the extraordinary feeling she exists in real life and that he is encountering a perfectly ordinary young woman of little character or distinction. Only days of close contract (in the pages of the novel) make her particular person clear to us. This is precisely what happens to us during Linda's 3,000 mile trip across the continent with Robin. h

The little caravan, a Maverick loaded with Linda's belongings, and Robin's, and the ashes of Linda's late husband (and Robin's father) packed in a box in the trunk, travels first to Iowa where Linda hopes to leave Robin with relatives. A wonderful piece of family business takes place here, and they travel toward California stopping next at Glendale, Arizona, where Robin's mother lives with her second husband. In both these encounters, with Robin's Iowa aunt and then with her mother, Hilma Wolitzer is able to suggest, as few modern writers can, the true ambivalence of human character, the duality of feeling that lives in us all. The expected stereotype falls away before her subtleties.

Linda is lovable and loving, a teacher of dance in a Fred Astaire studio, whose own life-choreography has been abruptly changed by the quick death of her husband from "heart." She is a Newark, New Jersey, provincial for whom the trip, picaresque and ironic in its turns, will bring maturity and self-realization. Robin is a sullen, bored, grass-smoking adolescent who is convinced she is unlovable because her mother deserted her (without "heart," so to speak) and who plans to avenge her loss as a child by killing her mother when she meets her again. The resolution of this fascinating melange of complex feelings and motives, of ardent, violent and humane impluses, is both unexpected and logical, surprising and entirely right. Linda wonders: "Why am I talking so much . . . and decided it was to avoid speaking the unspeakable. It was because she could not say aloud that she was bound to Robin, that you can become a family by the grace of accident and will, that we have a duty to console one another as best we can."

My enthusiam for this beautiful novel is not one whit dampened by an occassional lapse: some of the transitions between Linda's memories and the present are awkward, and the defense of her act by Robin's mother at the end of the book seemed to be overcolored and theatrical. But, on second thought, this last flaw may not be one at all, but instead in integral part of Wolitzer's method: to crayon the events with primary colors so that the resultant melodrama intensifies the genuine emotional content of her character's inner lives.

Sharp yet accurate in tone, very funny and very sad at the same time, gentle and humane in mood, fully believable in its parts and in its whole: Hearts is a novel of our time and, I feel quite certain, for some time to come.