THE LIGHT YEARS By Elizabeth Jane Howard Pocket Books. 434 pp. $18.95

A VERY strange book this, for all that it looks simply to be trying to don the mantle of past popular successes like The Shell Seekers, striving to be the sort of book that zooms straight from the confines of the printed page to Masterpiece Theatre. The first of a projected "Cazalet Chronicle," The Light Years, already a bestseller in England, is causing its American pubishers virtually to foam at the mouth in totemic enthusiasm, invoking, in addition to Rosamunde Pilcher, "Upstairs, Downstairs" and, of course, "The Forsyte Saga."

Yet the author, the very talented Elizabeth Jane Howard, fits uneasily, I think, into the category where her own current ambition (no one else wrote the book, after all) to achieve a larger audience has placed her. That hypothetical "smaller canvas" so often summoned into being as more suited to some writers' gifts may be a reviewer's cliche, but I think it's definitely useful in assessing Howard's current and past efforts. It certainly can be found in her intensely memorable masterpiece The Long View (see box), or in any of her other books -- for example, the lightly charming 1982 novel, Getting It Right, or, a dozen years earlier, that mordacious portrait of a menage a` trois, Odd Girl Out.

In contrast, The Light Years, though it spans just a two-year period (pre-war England, 1937-38) and roams only a narrow corridor from London to Sussex, is so stocked with fully differentiated Cazalet family members of all ages that we are treated not only to a carefully listed cast-of-characters (46 by my count, with various lovers omitted) but also to a double-page family tree. So nearly parodic is the display that it's hard to ignore the mental picture of the wondrously intelligent Howard, bent upon creating a roman-fleuve that would ensure her old age, thinking to herself, "They want a saga, I'll give 'em a saga."

Nonetheless, this is not to say that The Light Years is too completely self-conscious to entertain us. If there are moments when one has to duck the kitchen sink being hurled at one (spanning the predictability level from the banal -- the dithering elderly governess, who placidly wears "the kind of thing one might get in a shop" -- to the current fashion in horridness -- the tongue-kisses one clumsy Cazalet daddy experimentally bestows on his adolescent daughter), still Howard is always capable of lovely, surprising images and insights

For instance, here's a moment when Rachel, the unmarried Cazalet "girl," a virginal lesbian manque'e and mainstay of the household, is checking the completeness of the various bedroom fittings for coming visitors. There should be plenty of hangers in the closet, "clean lining paper in the drawers," full bottles of Malvern water at the ready and other expected amenities. But wait! In their quilted containers, Rachel finds that the Marie biscuits provided for between-meal nibbling "had become quite silent, crumbly and unappetizing. She collected the boxes and took them down to the pantry to be refilled."

Of course, I can't speak for other readers, but when I come across a reference to "silent" biscuits, I must say what I feel is pure delight. For me, that's what writing is, the ability to make us stop for an instant and re-register the familiar afresh, and I know that I'll always regard any soft, stale, cookies in my pantry as silently awaiting confiscation from here on in.

Now, however, for those of you concerned with plot, with arrivals and departures, love and death and taxis, I promise I'll get there in just a minute or so. But, first, I can't help wanting to dwell a little longer on Howard's strange and frequently self-defeating preoccupation with the inanimate and with exteriors, with litanies of period details and lists of extravagant repasts. Such as --

"Mrs. Cripps spent the morning plucking and drawing two brace of pheasant for dinner; she also minced the remains of the sirloin of beef for cottage pie, made a Madeira cake, three dozen damson tartlets, two pints of egg custard, two rice puddings, two pints of bread sauce, a prune mold and two pints of batter for the kitchen lunch of Toad-in-the-Hole, two lemon meringue pies and fifteen stuffed baked apples for the dining-room lunch."

As the paragraph goes on for quite a bit more, one easily spots the typically off-center Howard touch at the end, in the treatment of the gardener's grotesquely oversized, prize-winning squashes. "They were, as Rupert had once remarked to Rachel, the vegetable equivalent of the rudest seaside postcards -- not an idea that would have occurred to Mrs. Cripps." ELSEWHERE, a closely detailed description of a dining room (the "beautiful Chippendale chairs," etc.) concludes with a Cazalet child's reaction: "The general effect was ugly in a subdued kind of way, but nobody noticed it at all, except Louise who thought it was dull." Yet the problem with these Howard-ish fillips which cleverly present themselves for our delectation is that they indicate -- to me, at least -- a slight distaste on her part for the whole enterprise she's embarked upon. The result, though far from unreadable, does have a halfhearted air, and, while it may be the plushest furniture around, with bows and tassels on every overstuffed cushion, it's padding all the same.

But the plot, the plot. Well, Edward, Hugh and Rupert are Cazalet brothers; their wives, Viola (Villy), Sybil and Zoe, are of varying degrees of satisfactoriness. The children -- nine of them -- are personalities who will obviously come more into their own as the saga heads into the future, although each of the girl cousins, Louise, Polly and Clarissa (Clary), offers flashes of individual charm. And, frankly, if in the larger world war is in the offing, in the smaller, intimate Cazalet cosmos, it's the personal, even the trivial, which is accentuated. Yet, as we all know, it is ultimately the everyday events that make the world go 'round, that give our lives their context and meaning.

From one summer to the next -- we witness two, spent mostly in the country -- the Cazalets come together and apart. Things change. And that, for now, is all. Meet them and see for yourselves.

Michele Slung's new anthology, "I Shudder at Your Touch: Tales of Sex and Horror," will be published next spring.