By Margaret Drabble

Knopf. 408 pp. $18.95

IT IS a quarter of a century this year since English writer Margaret Drabble published her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage. For a generation of readers since -- mostly women, one suspects -- reading Drabble's novels has been something of a rite of passage. For many of us, the very titles are likely to trigger memories of the times and places -- the university cafeterias, the trains, the bedrooms -- in which we first read them. The Garrick Year, Jerusalem the Golden, The Waterfall, The Millstone, The Needle's Eye, The Realms of Gold: sharply observed, exquisitely companionable tales of women of a certain age and class, educated, egocentric, strong, unlucky in love, aging novel by novel, it seemed, as Drabble and we ourselves aged.

In a manner reminiscent of the best work of Rosamond Lehmann and Elizabeth Bowen, Margaret Drabble's early novels captured above all that sensation of youthful female despair or -- as the archeologist-heroine of The Realms of Gold puts it -- "Despair." Surprise pregnancies, failing relationships, uncertain aspirations, the usual "passion choked by domesticity" were everyday stuff for these women. Invariably they coped, occasionally they even triumphed, by means of a satisfying and peculiarly Drabblish combination of shrewdness and humor.

By the time The Ice Age appeared in 1977, however, it was evident that Margaret Drabble had enlarged her own aspirations. Hints of the change had surfaced earlier. In The Realms of Gold (1975), the archeologist recalls a former male tutor who, "when she used to complain about Despair, had said that she must learn to familiarize herself with it, and treat it as part of a pattern, part of a cycle." At the time the archeologist thought the tutor a "foolish and cynical old bore," and, though she later had cause to change her mind, The Ice Age suggests that she may have been right the first time, at least with respect to fiction-writing.

Having been so long a familiar of Despair, Margaret Drabble in her recent novels has tended to let the abstractions of "pattern" and "cycle" overwhelm the apparently random concrete particulars of her characters' everyday lives. Reviewers speak of her now as the Dickens of late 20th-century London, of England itself as a presence in her novels, of her maturing powers of observation. It should also be said that Drabble as a social prophet is much less fun to read and much more vulnerable to mockery than she was as a youthful storyteller of more modest pretensions.

The Radiant Way, then, finds Drabble at her worst and best. After a creaky opening -- the old New-Year's-Eve-party gambit ("a portent . . . a symbol . . . a landmark in the journey of their lives") in which nearly all the characters are introduced and all the major themes broached -- Drabble's gift for peopling her novels with genuinely memorable women takes over. There is a triple focus. Liz Headleand, a Harley St. psychiatrist, Esther Breuer, an independent art scholar, and Alix Bowen, a social worker and literature teacher, have been friends since their undergraduate days at Cambridge. Each offers a striking instance of feminine strength and intelligence. Beginning with Liz's New Year's Eve cocktail party, the plot weaves round and about these three lives and the lives depending from them, past and present. The narrative is enriched by Drabble's fine natural curiosity about people as individuals, but it is also soon stultified by her obvious and deliberate intention to reproduce at every turn the actual social fabric of England in the early 1980s. ("None of us, thought Liz, is wearing a dress made in England. Moroccan, Chinese, Indian. I wonder what that means, thought Liz.")

There is a wealth of occupations and "types" represented in the women's overlapping circles of acquaintances: television producers, artists, academics, poets, bureaucrats, physicians; aristocrats and students and workers; psychopathic mass murderers and suicides; radicals of both left and right. There is London, with all its solidity and glamour and gloom, and there is the glitzily papered-over decay of English provincial towns.

There are, less subtly, the interspersed passages of half-digested news commentary and private vision masquerading as contemporary history: "These were the years of inner city riots, of race riots in Brixton and Toxteth, of rising unemployment and riotless gloom: these were the years of a small war in the Falklands . . . the years when strange, tattered, vulture-like grey and black false plastic creatures began to perch and cluster in the trees of Britain. . ."

Most of the variations on human pairing are run through: marriages, divorces and affairs, both hetero- and homosexual; ties between parents and children and stepchildren; attachments to colleagues and students and prote'ge's. Above all there is the ideologically inspired feminist vision of "the radiant way" itself. Although deriving in the first place from a television documentary on British education made in the '60s by Liz Headleand's ex-husband and, before that, from the title of a pre-war reading primer, "the radiant way" clearly also refers to the unbroken circle of friendship, "the semi-permanent pattern," sustaining these three women despite the vagaries of their relationship with men.

There is very little plot as such, except insofar as the meanderings of our own lives could be described as plotted: the familiar scenario of "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow." All the women are tempted to varying degrees by the apparition of meaninglessness. The "deep deep boredom of childhood"; a husband's faithlessness experienced as "profoundly dull, profoundly trivial, profoundly irrelevant, . . . devoid of truth, devoid of meaning"; an old woman staring "into the heart of nothingness"; life as "an idle flutter of garbage over an empty pavement."

But they (or really Margaret Drabble, who hovers like an over-solicitous waiter at the banquet of her own novel) are equally tempted by the urge to find a pattern, a deeper meaning, in it all. "Alix," writes Drabble rather transparently, "liked to let her mind wander over the map of Britain, asking herself which interiors she could visualize, which not. She aspired to a more comprehensive vision. She aspired to make connections. . . The social structure greatly interested Alix." These sentences in fact sum up an important part of Drabble's own intentions in The Radiant Way. The vision itself, as well as the attempt to realize even a fragment of the "vast network" of humanity, is not without grandeur, but at the same time Drabble seems to have lost her old keen awareness of the fine line beyond which even true grandeur, over-inflated, becomes self-parody.

This failure of self-awareness has also had a bizarre effect on Margaret Drabble's prose style. She is still capable of those razor-edged flashes of perception ("Their words fluttered between them like lubricious little doves.") But on the whole Drabble has elected to go with a new style which might theoretically be described as pointillist (the accretion of tiny dot upon tiny dot of observation) but which in practice depends chiefly on that staple of adolescent composition, the dreaded adjectival string: Liz's husband's mistress has "a Bambi head, a skull head, a too, too thin head, an overbred head, a painful head"; Alix, "weeping copiously, embarrassed, appalled, relieved, prickling, unable to apologize"; the '50s generation, "a deeply conventional, timid, duffle-jacketed wasp-waisted narrow-based crew." Page after page of these strings or lists creates an effect of intolerable affectation.

The Radiant Way is -- to borrow the adjectival technique for a moment -- at once thought-provoking, worldly, civilized, long-winded, intelligent, deeply serious and predictably disappointing. But one has to admire the labor. Like Alix Bowen, Margaret Drabble has tried to make sense of the various component parts of modern England, of the building blocks which do not seem to make a building. "She would continue, patiently, persistently, to . . . rearrange them. She would compel them; or if she failed to compel them, it would not be through want of effort."

Elizabeth Ward frequently reviews contemporary fiction for Book World.