By Alison McLeay

Simon and Schuster. 606 pp. $19.95

IT IS a melancholy thought, but most women are mercenary creatures. Some women are greedy because, like men, they share a desire for power and control. Others, like Rachel Dean in Alison McLeay's first novel, Passage Home, succumb to the same avarice when faced with the basic need to survive.

Rachel Dean's story starts in 1827 in a fishing village in Newfoundland and moves to the frontier town of Independence, Mo., and then to the great shipping port of Liverpool, England.

Rachel is the unloved daughter of a heartless, cruel woman, Susannah Dean, who has a gift for making money that is only matched by her ruthless ability to destroy the lives of those who get in the way of what she wants. Yet Susannah Dean's desperate ambition, for which her daughter never forgives her, is as much a part of necessity as Rachel's own calculating decisions later in her own life.

Rachel's journey through life takes her from a young wife struggling with poverty and domesticity in a log cabin on the western frontier to the titled mistress of a grand house in England. Along the way, Rachel nearly dies of starvation, supports herself and her son as a shop-girl, and enjoys a great success as a French "chanteuse" in a whorehouse. She loses a husband under mysterious circumstances, is shot in a barroom brawl, blackmailed by a lecherous tutor, pursued by her vindictive mother, and becomes an expert on ship-building. She is a jill-of-all-trades, if nothing else.

It is all highly improbable stuff but very much what some emancipated women today probably wish their 19th-century counterparts might have been like. The truth is much more stifling but not nearly as entertaining.

Rachel herself is oddly schizoid -- at one moment as fearless and unconventional as the classic tomboy heroine, Jo, in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, and then suddenly transformed into the demure, dependent and proper Meg, Jo's perfect sister. Any woman who grew up reading and loving Jo and Meg's story remembers how vividly she identified with one or the other. Rachel, however, is both Meg and Jo, which is puzzling. She is dependent and independent as it suits; a personification of pragmatism that is essentially a modern feminist's dilemma.

The same extremes of psychological behavior are also expressed in Adam Grant. He is washed ashore from a shipwreck and enters the young and vulnerable Rachel's world as the handsome, brooding love of her life. Quite frankly, Adam acts like a cad -- but you probably guessed that already.

Alison McLeay's storytelling talents are best displayed when she describes the sea and ships and anything to do with nature. She has a genuine ability to describe a storm so vividly that you can feel the rain lashing on your cheek, and her research into times and places and things has been meticulous. It is just a pity that so many of her plot twists are semaphored far ahead. There are too many coincidences, too many neat endings, so that one feels at times one is holding a paper parcel rather than a book.

Life is not so neat, but then again, Passage Home is a fiction in which all things are possible, evil is eventually overcome and love conquers all.

Anna Murdoch, who lives in New York, is the author of the novels "In Her Own Image" and "Family Business."