A MOTHER AND TWO DAUGHTERS is a novel of genuine consequence, a spacious and generous book into which Gail Godwin has entrusted worlds of feeling and understanding. It has nothing to do with the cramped, narcissistic, self-indulgent novels now in favor among the literary elite; it is a populous, exuberant expansive novel in the Victorian tradition. It is everything that a novel should be: funny, sad, provocative, ironic, compassionate, knowing, true. It does what only the best fiction can do: it slows the reader down, insisting that he progress through it at the author's own pace. Making that journey is a remarkable experience.

It is a novel about that richest of all subjects, families, and it takes its inspiration from Montaigne: "To storm a breach, conduct an embassy, govern a people, these are brilliant actions; to scold, laugh . . . and deal gently and justly with one's family and oneself . . . that is something rarer, more difficult, and less noticed in the world." It is a novel about the death of a man to whom these words were precious, who made it his true life's work to live up to them, and about the emptiness his death leaves in the lives of the three women in his family.

His name is Leonard Strickland. He lives with his wife, Nell, in the North Carolina town of Mountain City (Godwin's home town of Asheville, lightly disguised), where he practices law; Nell, who was once a nurse, has not worked since their marriage four decades ago. Their elder daughter, Cate, teaches English at a foundering college in the Middle West; she is 39 and has been divorced twice. Their younger daughter, Lydia, who is 36, lives in Winston-Salem; she is in the process of separating from her husband, splitting custody of their two teen-aged sons.

On the evening of December 16, 1978, Leonard and Nell are driving home from an annual Christmas party given by one of their oldest friends, a spinster named Theodora Blount. Leonard, complaining of terrible pains, begins to pull off the road; the car, which he has not brought to a stop, turns over as it leaves the pavement. Leonard is dead, apparently instantly, of a coronary; Nell is badly bruised and shaken, but alive.

So the daughters come home for the funeral, their friends and neighbors gather about them, and Leonard is buried. For his three women, it is an end and a beginning. Though Nell remains in the house where she and Leonard lived for most of their marriage, the old life is gone forever; for both of the daughters, their father's death coincides with moments of impending crisis in their own lives--and though there is no connection between his death and their crises, it serves to underscore the fragility and uncertainty that both of them feel.

For Nell, who is 63 and was utterly devoted to her husband, the hour is shattering. Yet she has the comfort, clumsily expressed though it at times may be, of her old friends, many of them now widows themselves; "Here we all are, together, the long-lived females of the race, the proverbial 'survivors,' thought Nell, brandishing a newly gleaming blade in the morning light; condoling and consoling and casseroling each other as we shrivel into old dried husks of ourselves. . . ." Her immediate instinct is to allow herself to be enveloped into the fold of widowhood, to collapse into a premature old age. But Cate points out that "old today is not what old was yesterday," and then Nell remembers:

"'Funny,' said Nell. 'Do you know, your father used almost the same expression the night he . . . well, just before we went off the road. We were talking about . . . about you girls, as a matter of fact. And I said, "Cate will be forty this coming June," and he said forty for a person today wasn't like forty when we were that age. He said the expectancies were stretching."

Stretching in two senses: a person can expect to do more into a later age, and more is expected of that person by society. Cate's and Leonard's words open a door for Nell; she suddenly realizes that she is free to be whatever she is capable of being, and she begins to resist the early entombment into which she was about to collapse. She sets out to find her place in the world.

Which is what Cate has been trying to do all her life. She is an intelligent but contentious woman who "had only to enter a room and life became immediately more turbulent and complicated," a person who "was always sacrificing people to ideals." For all her brains and training--she wrote her Ph.D. thesis on D. H. Lawrence --she is haunted by a sense of failure: she has not held onto a substantial job, she has not publshed, her childless marriages ended in divorce. Then her college goes under, and she retreats to the family cottage on the North Carolina shore in hopes of restructuring her life:

"A new day. A new beginning. I'll be all right, thought Cate, setting herself a brisk marching pace up the beach. In a way, I'm starting completely over. It's nice to start over. My future, at this juncture, is as clear of impediments as this beach. I don't know what's coming next, but here I go, striding forward, taking deep breaths, to meet it."

At the beach Cate has a fierce confrontation with Lydia; the tension between them has waxed and waned since childhood but never completely vanished, and it explodes at this moment when Cate is feeling uncertain about her future while Lydia is more and more confident about her own. Lydia, who is "strong as steel without forfeiting one ounce of her femininity," has left her husband and has "a prescient feeling that she had crossed her own starting point and that she had a very interesting future ahead of her." She has returned to college and found, in one of her teachers, a valued friend; she has found a lover who pleases and amuses her; and by being in the right place at the right time, she has taken the first tentative step toward a career in television.

Godwin gives us each of these women as a discrete, distinct individual; she shifts with impressive facility from one voice to another. Cate is the central figure, no doubt because Godwin clearly identifies most strongly with her. Yet it is one of the many strengths of this wonderful book that the central figure is by no means the most sympathetic. Cate's self-righteousness is infuriating, her rejections of love are bewildering, her self-pity is most unattractive. Yet precisely because she is so complex and articulate, she provokes strong reactions in others and leads them, as well as herself, to moments of illumination. It is, for example, when Cate whiningly tries to reject Nell's offer of aid and comfort in her time of trial that Nell suddenly, angrily, comes to a crucial understanding:

"'When you're alive, you do what you can do. That's the duty, that's the privilege of the living. I'm not sure the rest matters very much. If you love me, if you honor me at all, you will accept what I offer out of love--and because I have it to offer. Otherwise'--Nell spread her arms in an exasperated gesture--'what has it all been for?'"

Of the several major and minor themes that wind carefully through Godwin's narrative, this seems to me the one at the heart of the book: the joy of living and the obligation to try to do it well. Godwin describes the question Hawthorne asked in The Scarlet Letter--"Can the individual spirit survive the society in which it has to live?"--and answers it with a wry yet ringing affirmative. She poses death against life, and chooses life for every precious moment that it is granted.

There are nits to be picked--a couple of sentimentalized characters, some unnecessary foreshadowing, some awkward tidying up in the "Epilogue"--but I do not propose to pick them. Any flaws in this novel are those of daring and ambition, th tose committed by a writer trying, in Faulkner's memorable phrase, "to put all of the history of the human heart on the head of a pin." This Godwin is trying to do; in the extended family that in the end gathers to celebrate itself, she has given us nothing less than the family of humanity, in all its flawed and perfect glory.

She has also given us a novel of extraordinary range and detail. It moves at such a leisurely pace because the reader cannot stand to miss a word; everything is interesting or funny or perceptive or stunningly familiar--or all of those things and many others. She drops off provocative asides ("What were aristocrats but simply the barbarians who got there first?") with aplomb and insouciance. And she, turns out--this was not really evident in her four previous books--to be a stunningly gifted novelist of manners. Here, in a passage also worth quoting as an example of her pungent prose style, she describes the beginning of a meeting of Nell's book club in Mountain City:

"Guests arrived at eleven forty-five; you were supposed to have them seated at the table by noon; there were no cocktails first, no alcohol ever; coffee, hot coffee, was supposed to flow from the same endless source as the hot rolls, and be served straight through, from soup to nuts; and--this was the tradition that got Nell--the hostess was not supposed to sit down at her own table. The hostess was expected to circulate around and around the table, pouring the coffee and passing the hot rolls and--during hurried refuelings of coffeepot or refillings of roll basket in the kitchen--stuff what she could get of her own food in her mouth, like a servant between trips."

Anyone who knows the upper-middle-class South knows that the detail of that passage is exact, the mood of it precise and true. Yet though the tone is mocking, there is an underlying spirit of amused affection that gives the passage its strength; Godwin loves these silly ladies even as she pokes fun at them--and she knows that they are not really silly.

This quality of compassion is new to Godwin's novels, if not to the brilliant short stories that were collected in Dream Children. It was her missing ingredient, the one important quality that her fiction lacked. Now that she has put heart as well as intellect into a novel, she has moved to the high place among our novelists for which she had long seemed destined. A Mother and Two Daughters is a work of complete maturity and artistic control, one that I am fully confident will find a permanent and substantial place in our national literature.