TWO YEARS ago I went back for my 25th reunion at Smith. Throughout the weekend my classmates related to each other what their lives had been like since they had graduated. It was an extremely emotional experience -- a litany of disappointments, defeats, divorce, diseases, cancer and AIDS, the deaths of parents, spouses, even children, handicapped and sick children, infertility, abortions, miscarriages, tragic love affairs, loneliness, failed careers, discrimination, alcoholism, drugs, depression, mental illness, desperation in stagnant marriages and jobs . . . the cumulative effect of the pain and suffering was staggering.

Of course there were successes too, it wasn't all bad news, but as I looked back on it later, it seemed to me that what I had heard was no more than what could be expected at midpassage and only reflected collectively what most people can expect out of life.

Not being religious I have become fascinated and curious about how other people deal with pain and grief.

British novelist Susan Howatch has written an enthralling sequence on the intellectual challenge of overcoming pain. Though spiritual and psychological in nature the books deal with everyday human problems and foibles and definitely fall into the "can't put it down" category.

Ostensibly about the Church of England beginning around the time of World War II and ending in the '60s, Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers, Ultimate Prizes and Scandalous Risks (all titles in Knopf hardcover or Fawcett Crest paperback) explore the moral dilemmas of people who have confidently, even smugly, chosen how they want to lead their lives yet find themselves tormented when they must confront their own weaknesses, sexual and emotional. Howatch creates personal mazes for her characters and then through brilliant dialogue and riveting plot development she allows them, with the reader doing much of the work, to find their way out.

In Ultimate Prizes she quotes English theologian Charles Raven to illustrate the theme of her novels: "Most people have, at some time or another, to stand alone and to suffer, and their final shape is determined by their response to their probation: they emerge either the slaves of circumstance or in some sense captains of their souls." SALLY QUINN Novelist