Imitation as the sincerest form of avarice is an established American phenomenon. Not only do we imitate art, we imitate life. This used to be known as the soap opera, but the new consciousness has transformed it into the "daytime drama."

Rona Jaffe's "Class Reunion" is the soap opera version of Mary McCarthy's "The Group." What was once an intriguing piece of smart sociological fiction has been reduced to an ingenuously "hip" formula more seamy than steamy. It's trashy, but as such things go, it's upper-middle class trash, like an empty Stouffer's spinach souffle carton.

As Jaffe would have it, a group of "typical" Harvard and Radcliffe students, the crass of '57, seek the meaning of life through their college careers, into the '60s and '70s and ultimately at their 20th class reunion. Since each has a certain amount of intellectual flab, this is more strenous exercise than one might expect.

There are eight of these student stereotypes, who inevitably resolve themselves into interclotted pairs. The book jacket describes the four women in a jargon worthy of a Harlequin Romance advertisement:

"Annabel, the free spirit" (translation: the easy lay with the heart of gold); "Christine, the romantic" (the plain brain hopelessly in love with a homosexual); "Emily, the impatient one" (the nouveau riche Jew); and "Daphne, the Golden Girl" (capitals Jaffe's).

These mix and mate with: Max, the homosexual Broadway producer who is Annabel's best friend; Alexander, Max's lover who married Christine; Ken, the Jewish med student who becomes Emily's husband and a Beverly Hills dermatologist, in that order; and Richard, the "golden Boy" (Jaffe apparently having run out of adjectives) who dumps his waitress wife and kid on the way to marital bliss with Daphne.

All get just what they deserve. Annabel's promiscuity gets her ostracized; Emily has a nervous breakdown; Chris finds Alexander in bed with a dumb blond; and Daphne spends 20 years hiding her epilepsy from the perfectionist Richard.

Presumably Jaffe thinks Max gets what he deserves, too-a knife in the back fram a teen-age pick-up. But despite herself, Jaffe has given this garish scene more vitality and realism than any other episode in the book.

Forty years in the lives of eight characters is a lot of ground to cover in 338 pages, but Jaffe uses so many cliches, as sort of pulp-romance short-hand (after all, this is her ninth novel), she makes it seem longer. Like a soap opera, it's absorbing and embarrassing at the same time.

However, to give it credit, "Class Reunion" does offer the reader a rare opportunity to play the rewrite game (also known as the "spin-off" proposal).

What if Daphne had an epileptic seizure while making love to Ken on the operating table? What if one of Alexander's nubile youngsters turned out to be Richard's long lost son? What if Emily's breakdown had transformed her into a born-again Christian complete with sigmata? Why doesn't Annabel's precocious daughter have an abortion? Why can't we all get book contracts?