THE ROAD TO LICHFIELD

By Penelope Lively

Grove Weidenfeld. 216 pp. $17.95

THIS FINE new novel by Penelope Lively is in fact new only to her readers on this side of the Atlantic; it was originally published in England in 1977 and is the first of the 11 works of fiction she has written to date for adult readers, in addition to 18 others for children and one work of nonfiction. But if The Road to Lichfield has taken a while to get to America, it proves well worth the wait; like all of Lively's best novels, it contains beneath its modest veneer great depths of intelligence, perception and feeling, not to mention a thoroughly believable and interesting cast of characters.

Lively's principal settings are the suburbs of London and the small towns a few miles beyond, all of them struggling to accommodate the forward rush of progress while at the same time maintaining some connection with their past. Her characters are the people of the middle class, most of them unprepossessing and quiet, or at least so they seem until we get to know them. Her themes are numerous, but just about all of them eventually boil down to the complex ways in which we maintain the delicate web of relationships that is the essence of a civilized world -- most particularly, those relationships in which the central and endlessly complicating ingredient is love.

Thus we have Anne Linton, who at 40 years of age has a "dead careful" husband, Don, who "doesn't really disapprove of anything except fuss, bother, demands," and two teenaged children who are beginning to cut their cords and move out into the world. They live in the suburb of Cuxing, leading moderate and cautious and "rather sheltered" lives that are, for all of that, happy and productive; Don is a successful lawyer and Anne has done some teaching of history in the local schools.

Some three hours away by car, in the town of Lichfield, Anne's father is slowly dying. As the novel begins she is driving the road to Lichfield for the first of many visits to the nursing home to which he committed himself in an act of calm deliberation entirely characteristic of his prudent and well-organized life. Her mother died some years ago and her brother, a successful television producer and bon vivant, is tied down by his commitments in London; so it falls to Anne, dutiful daughter, to assume the responsibility of easing her father's passage to the grave.

This she does, with patience and as much good humor as the circumstances permit, but she soon finds that the road to Lichfield is more than a mere journey between points on the map. Opening her father's papers in his empty house, she discovers evidence of mysterious regular payments made by him over many years to a woman previously unknown to her. It is the first of several steps that lead her to a new understanding of this man whom she has known and loved all her life yet whom, she now realizes, she has scarcely known at all: "So far as I am concerned -- have been concerned -- he existed to be my father, and now one finds that was not the case at all, or only a small part of it."

Her father had a mistress on the side, who in turn had a daughter, whose financial distress he helped relieve with these monthly checks: It comes as a terrible surprise to Anne at first, completely at odds with everything she had known and believed about him, but the more she thinks about it the less it worries her, because she is coming to understand that we can never fully know another person, that each of us ultimately is a mystery utterly unto himself. It is an understanding that soon becomes all the more immediate when this tidy and orderly woman herself does the unthinkable: She falls in love and begins an ardent affair.

The parallels are exact, though Lively does not hammer away at them: Just as her father's affair was a side of her life totally unknown to her, so too her own affair is a side of Anne Linton that is likely to remain forever concealed to her own son and daughter. The cycle of human mystery goes on and on, and about all there is to say about it is what her father's mistress's daughter says to Anne: "You can't judge other people, can you? You don't know what goes on."

This quiet drama takes place against the background of a public controversy, into which Anne is drawn, involving the impending destruction of a building that, though in decrepit condition and lacking in architectural distinction, does possess the peculiarity of being the oldest building in Cuxing. Protests are mounted by the usual suspects:

"Sandra Butterfield sought causes with the fervor of a medieval churchman in pursuit of a heresy. Her small, tubby person exuded energy and indignation. Propelled by her and her followers, over the years, this spruce Berkshire village had embraced liberalism, cherished the environment, fought the threat of a motorway, restored the church spire. Denied the need to work by her husband's income, she pursued occupation. Hers was the stocky, tireless physique of a peasant woman bowed over a cornfield in some nineteenth century painting; transposed into her large modern house in this tranquil commuterland, she seemed to dart hither and thither with the undirected pent-up energy of a clockwork toy. A prettier woman would have taken up adultery."

The dispute over Spratt's Cottage permits Lively to have a good deal of fun at the expense of Sandra and her cohorts, but it is all to serious purpose. Along with the discovery of her father's past and the inescapable reality of her own present, it conspires to produce in Anne an appreciation for "how slippery the past is" and a new sense of the ambiguity of it: "Oh, the past is disagreeable all right, she thought, no wonder we'd rather not know. And it has this way of jumping out at you from behind corners when you're least expecting it, so that you have to spend time and energy readjusting to it, redigesting it. Or it hangs around your neck like an albatross, so that there is no putting it aside ever, even if you wanted to."

How Anne comes to terms with her own unknown and mysterious past, what place she finally manages to accord it in her life, are the questions that occupy the final pages of The Road to Lichfield. Like all the pages that go before, they are unfailingly literate, thoughtful and touching. In the literature of 20th-century domestic life, the place Penelope Lively has made for herself grows larger and more consequential with each new novel, even if the novel really isn't new at all.