ON A SOFT SPRING NIGHT in 1962, a couple of Harvard students are sipping sherry with a resident tutor of Dunster House and the talk turns to novels about Harvard: "The one from the 1930s was appealing but too long. Another was about being Jewish -- and the main character was unfortunately rather unpleasant. Then, there was, of course, the one about the professorial suicide . . ." And the list goes on.

This scene appears fairly early on in Faye Levine's new novel, Splendor and Misery, and it's meant to be a joke within a joke. Levine's own book is subtitled, "A Novel of Harvard," and the resident tutor of Dunster House who appears in this scene turns out to have ideas for his own Harvard novel. It will be a simple story about a preppie and a poor but beautiful girl who dies. The tutor's name is Erich Segal.

Splendor and Misery abounds with these insiders' jokes. The Harvard that Levine shows us is a self-absorbed place, a place of pranks and power plays, clubbiness and codewords. Above all, it is a place which can be guaranteed to take its own legends seriously. But it is also the Harvard of the early 1960s and Levine makes it clear that, as much as anything, it is a place on the edge of revolution. The Harvard of this novel teeters with nervous energy, like a coin spinning on its rim just before it drops.

Into all of this steps Levine's heroine, Sarah Galbraeth, a fresh-faced freshman from Cerro Gordo County, Iowa -- a girl, who, we're told, has never had a worry about much of anything except being "princess of Mason City High School." When she arrives in Cambridge with her purple knee socks and green duffel bag, she's a long way from her realm, but, in amazingly short order, she finds new fields to conquer -- and a whole new batch of loyal subjects. Sarah Galbraeth manages to win not only a coveted position on the staff of the Harvard Crimson, but the heart of Crimson editor Michael Verhoeven as well. Along the way, she is able to squeak by with her academic work and to become friends with an assortment of girls from her dorm, including a refugee scholarship student, a fledgling radical and a sultry Parisian who enjoys lounging around her dorm room in the nude.

Sarah's four years at Harvard are marked by the great public events of the times -- Kennedy's assassination, the Civil Rights movement, the drug scene, the rumblings of controversy about Vietnam. But, privately, her life remains unruffled. If she was a princess back in Iowa, she has graduated to the rank of queen at Harvard and everything seems to go her way -- until her last semester when she is persuaded to run for class marshal, an office that has been male-only for 329 years. It begins as a lark, a scheme hatched one slow afternoon in the Crimson newsroom, but the controversy that ensues raises nationwide interest. Wire services pick up the story. Television reporters ask for interviews. Sarah Galbraeth has become a celebrity and, all of a sudden, people are taking her candidacy seriously. The only problem is that no one takes it quite so seriously as Sarah herself and no one is fully prepared for her reaction when the whole thing ends in fiasco.

Levine's Sarah is difficult to get to know. Her physical attributes are as wispy and elusive as smoke. "What a changeable girl she is," a male classmate remarks. "One day she looks almost pretty and the next time you see her, she's a terror. Completely different." But she is a compelling character nonetheless, particularly in the final section of the book when her crown slips and her whole kingdom comes crashing down. This is where we really do get to know Sarah Galbraeth and, finally, to like her.

Faye Levine has filled this book with the requisite landmarks of Harvard Square: the news stands, the Coop, the Casablanca, Tommy's, the Blue Parrot, the "Bick." She has thrown in at least one character to represent every Harvard "type." There are intellectuals and debutantes, conservatives and Christians. There are Crimson types and Lampoon types, Loeb Theater types and Hasty Pudding types. There are the inevitable caricatures of Porcellian Club types, "square-jawed" boys who do nothing but sip cognac and bemoan the fact that each year Harvard is admitting "more pubbies, more Jews, more foreigners, more girls . . ." And there are cameo appearances by people like Joan Baez and John Coltrane. All in all, there are enough people crowded into this book that it becomes a tricky business at times to unravel the threads of their separate stories.

And, unfortunately, Levine's writing style serves to compound our confusion. In her last novel, Solomon and Sheba, her prose was rich and textured, just right for the material. But in Splendor and Misery, something has gone awry. Levine's intelligence shines through the pages of this book as does her keen eye for detail, but the story she is trying to tell us keeps slipping out of focus, mostly because a strong -- and curiously arch -- voice pipes up again and again to distract us. This is the voice that describes Sarah Galbraeth upon her arrival in Cambridge as "gazing wide-eyed at the splendiferous panorama." It is the voice that turns a tall, red-bearded student into a "big ruddy