WHAT A relief it is to read popular fiction in which women succeed through their strength and ability rather than through the length of their legs or eyelashes, where the heroines are too busy living complex lives to worry about inching over-the-hill and where their beauty and wisdom increase with time.

West to Eden offers all of that and an absorbing history lesson, too. It is the surprisingly obscure story of Jewish immigration to the American West and it is additionally a compelling, 40-year family saga.

We first meet the complex and vital heroine, Emma Coen, in 1897 when, as a young Dutch Jew, she confronts multiple loss and betrayal. Emma's father has died and she learns that he had lost all of his considerable wealth through risky financial dealings undertaken to sustain a secret, second family. Her fiance' says he will stand by her, then promptly deserts his newly impoverished beloved. And her mother, unable to bear the thought of poverty or of duplicity, kills herself. Hoping to escape her memories, Emma leaves her native Amsterdam to live in London.

But London seems a pale adventure in comparison. Believing that "if Jews were to go the the American West, they would be transformed from refugees into pioneers," Emma moves to Galveston, Texas, and opens a rooming house.

A new boarder, Russian immigrant Isaac Lewin, has also suffered devastating loss. His wife and daughter were killed in a pogrom. In one of the author's few excesses, Emma and Isaac come to the realization of their love, the decision to marry and the decision to move to Arizona -- all as a tidal wave wreaks destruction around them.

Once settled in Phoenix, Arizona, the immigrants start a family. But their joy in their children and in their increasing economic success is marred by marital tension.

Goldreich masterfully portrays the experience of immigrants excited by the opportunities of a new world yet still struggling to free themselves from the effects of past tragedies.

She has done an equally compelling job of showing how two people, afraid they will once again lose what they love, almost destroy the love that they have.

POOR, POOR Sarah Bernhardt! Joel Gross, in Sarah, has painted a wrenching psychological portrait of the brilliant actress in his fictionalized account of her life.

He leaves us aching for the illegitimate little girl, who is alternately ignored and disdained by her courtesan mother, and who will never know the love or even the identity of her father.

Sarah can find the adulation she craves only on the stage. And then only at the price of excruciating stage fright. Luckily, she is far more adept at choosing parts than at choosing men. The author presents her lovers as little more than parasites, anxious to take from her what they can. It is a sad story of a woman whose desperate need for love is the motivating force of her life yet whose need remains largely unmet throughout her 79 years; the story of a woman adored by the masses but truly known and loved by no one.

The author succeeds in evoking sorrow for a woman driven to sublime professional achievement by a personal unhappiness so great that she cannot enjoy her success but must always push to achieve more.

HERE'S a switch: a heroine struggling to surmount the disadvantages of a privileged childhood:

It is Morgana's 21st birthday and her father, Chicago newspaper magnate Howard Croft Tate has thrown the party of 1949 for his spoiled and wilful daughter. He tells her that she will one day inherit his influential daily newspaper, The Star.

But Morgana doesn't wait for daddy's death to start bringing evidence of corruption to the pages of the previously complacent newspaper. Her awareness of and determination to tell the truth start on the very day of the glittering party. Accompanying a photographer to a fire scene, she ends up participating in the daring rescue of a child from a burning tenement. The child's parents are among those who die in the fire.

When Morgana learns that the blaze was one of many deliberately set to benefit a powerful slum landlord, she begins to develop a social conscience that ultimately forces her to reveal ugly family secrets in the pages of her own newspaper.

Headlines has all the ingredients for pop success: sex, crime, money, beauty. And it even gives the reader a little more: a dollop of morality. A wealthy heroine motivated by ethics rather than acquisitiveness makes for satisfying reading.

THE READER will be less satisfied following the inevitable success of impoverished, ambitious Cassie Taylor. Hers is a stereotypical and unabsorbing victory.

Cassie's story begins in Clifton County, Oklahoma, in 1930 when she is 5 years old. She is raised in poverty by her alcoholic, sharecropper father and predictably wise, old granny.

When she is 13, her beloved grandmother dies, she is nearly raped by her malevolent half-brother and she witnesses the shooting death of her father -- all on the same night. Cassie's upbringing is then left to slothful and indifferent relatives.

As the years pass, Cassie strengthens an early resolve to own land. Some 25 years after we meet her, she realizes her goal. Now a successful Texas lawyer and the ex-wife of the landowner's playboy son, Cassie purchases the land on which she was raised.

But she has one more matter to resolve: What to do about her love for her ex-husband's brother. Guess what she decides?:

"There was a flutter in her chest but she tried to ignore it . . . It was time, she knew, time to take the risk. Time to be a crazy idealist . . . "

So Cassie takes the risk: "I love you, Dixon Steele, and I will always love you . . . "

" . . . 'Cassie, my God! Cassie!' He wrapped his arms around her. 'I love you, too. I've loved you since that day we swam in the creek. There's never been anyone but you! . . . .' "

The stilted writing and hackneyed dialogue make some of the text as embarrassing to read as it is for an 8-year-old to watch the love scenes in a Grade B movie.

THE NET is not embarrassing to read. But it is not quite satisfying either. Tennis star Ilie Nastase certainly knows his world, but he never takes us beyond its dazzle into the souls of his characters.

Natty Kotany is a young and awkward girl when her mother and tennis star father are killed in a plane crash. Dad's best friend is men's tennis champion Istvan Horwat, whose life is laced with luxury and sinuous women.

But alas, it is an empty life -- until Istvan adopts Natty.

As a child, Natty is jealous of the "other" women in Istvan's life. As a beautiful (of course) young woman who has herself become a tennis champion, she sets about supplanting them.

She succeeds temporarily, but the noble Istvan, whose days as a star are ending just as Natty's are beginning,sacrifices their love for her future -- abruptly and unnecessarily, it seems.

It's all just a little too glib for us to truly care.

Janet Kaye, a former federal government attorney and newspaper reporter, is at work on a collection of short stories.