SUFFERING from a bad case of urban ennui, 23-year-old Jennifer Spell quit her job, her boyfriend, and meets up with ageless Mildred Howell (b. 1901) in a Grand Central Station coffee shop. Mildred is no ordinary bag lady, no one-time debutante who lost it all in the Great Depression. She is Jennifer's fair godmother -- "I am magic," Mildred announces -- and also the Ancient Mariner, Scherezade, Conrad Marlowe: "My story is about tourists," she tells Jennifer, "in the sense that we are all tourists."

So begins Lisa Zeidner's first novel, an inventive entertainment flawed by a tendency toward the precious, graced by the writer's affection for her spunky, oddball characters. As Mildred unravels her tale of Tourisme, a wacky Utopian community founded in the Alps by 50 Irish immigrants in 1880, Jennifer remembers her Baltimore childhood -- her violinist-father whose "spacious heart" reviewers esteem, her remote mother Lucy, enveloped by chronic pain she remedies with suicide. When her mother dies, Jennifer is 6 and already quite knowledgable about suffering and grief. Like many precocious children, she drives her awareness underground in an attempt to pacify the well-meaning adults -- her father and aunt -- who must raise her. "They seemed to like me best as a child," she reflects, "and I didn't want to displease them."

The chapters devoted to the Spell family are poignant and witty, the work of a writer who has learned the difference between sentiment and sentimentality, pathos and bathos. After her father has told her of Lucy's death, Jennifer recalls, "We were driving badly. We passed the church with the huge mosaic of Jesus Christ which I hated. The Spells did not believe in God. We didn't like melodrama. We were, from what I could gather, more Behaviorists than anything else." With such quiet irony, Lisa Zeidner details for us the resilience to pain in this family, especially in this daughter who become, with Mildred Howell as guide, "a citizen of the heart."

Mildred's story leads Jennifer to her own. By the end of the book, we understand how the two histories are related. But the Tourisme tale does not compel our attention in the same way that Jennifer's childhood memories do. Zeidner seems to be aspiring here to a Chagall-like literary pastiche of fantasy, dream, and reality in a single setting, with Mildred as the artiste supreme . But the chronicle of erotic mayhem -- incest, murder, infidelity are taken for granted in Tourisme -- never quite coheres in the way surrealism must if it is to convince us of its own particular truths. As if Zeidner realizes the weaknesses in the Tourisme contruction, she has Mildred tell Jennifer (and the reader) before she begins her narrative: "There are eleven major characters in my story, and you will have to concentrate to get their names straight, no less learn to love them -- and you must love them . . . You'll have to be patient. A good part of the time you'll hate me."

Mildred is hard to hate -- who can hate a woman who orders a rare English muffin? -- but her slapsticky, pratfalling cast can get on one's nerves, endearing though some of them are. We have Pia, Kitsa, Casey, Frog, Gato, Klaus, Rory and Helen, among others, to keep straight, and we have a plot that defies belief, yet insists we believe it, if the novel's denouement is to work. Is Tourisme's Sanity Inn Zeidnerhs comic version of D.M. Tthomas' white hotel, the concertization of the unconscious, the symbolic address of past and future? And if so, then what do we make of the information that Jennifer's mother Lucy is Tourisme's Frog? Here the end of the plot tie up into a Gordian knot.

Tourisme is, most clearly, a microcosm of modern society -- devoted to pleasure, subject to violence ("Ax murders become a trend"), cut off from history ("Casey and Katey O'Brian heard about World War I from some American stayng at Sanity Inn"), perennially adolescent. Mildred describes Casey, grandson of Tourisme's founder, in this way: "Even as an old man he sometimes inflicted his past with facilieness -- a youngsterhs sacrilegious prank. He believed he could have a snappy dialogue with fate, tip his hat off, and saunter off, swirling a jewelled walking stick." It is "the basic vulgarity of the magic world" that Mildred is exposing -- "Look at Venice, California, if you need evidence" -- but through a vehicle that too often succumbs in the telling to the gimmickry, the glibness, the silliness of its characters. When Zeidner allows the residents of Tourisme, puerile though they are, the simply humanity of the Spell family, the book is beautiful, unabashed loving, without pretense. Too often, however, we get a king of literary vaudeville act, as if the writer herself becomes Casey, tap-dancing in the rubble.

I can understand that Zeidner did not want to write yet another coming-of-age-in-America first novel. But her gifts are so apparent, her sensibility so mature, that one wishes she hadn't invested so much effort in mere cleverness. The push to be original nearly shoves this novel off its track. True, it is a familiar track, but William Faulkner once observed that only when he'd learned ther were no new stories to tell, could he be a true storyteller.