At some point in reading a book, one expects to understand why the title was chosen. It may come early or very late, but it should add some meaning to the book or the author's intentions. The link between the contents of Alan Ebert's novel and "Traditions," the title he gave it, is so tenuous as to be almost nonexistent. One reads and reads and reads but never finds the connection.

Spanning approximately 40 years, "Traditions" begins in 1934 and is divided into four books. It follows the lives of two beautiful sisters, Margaret and Carolyn Tiernan, starting in their late teens with a cross-country train jaunt to Hollywood to join their famous actor parents and begin their own acting careers. Upon their arrival they discover that both parents have been killed in a motorcar accident and that they are now famous orphans. Their first film is renamed "Waifs in the Wind."

Wisecracking, feisty, hot-blooded Margaret stays on in Tinseltown and becomes one of the studio's big moneymakers. But she gets pregnant by a burly Irish film electrician and, refusing an abortion, is forced by studio boss Frank Killerbrew to marry a secretly gay cowboy star in order to protect her image and make the baby legitimate. Predictably, she falls in love and has a tumultuous affair with Killerbrew, who is married to Nancy Blanshard Killerbrew, the lesbian daughter of the man from whom he wrested the studio. Nancy's 25 percent ownership of Killerbrew Studios assures her continued ownership of Frank.

Meanwhile, Carolyn is on her way to becoming the first lady of Broadway. A devout Catholic terrified of sex, she also is driving her public relations-producer husband John Ollson into other arms and other beds. Nevertheless, they still manage to have three children, including a set of twins. The twins and Vinnie (Margaret's boy) get their own radio show and become famous child stars. John goes off to war (the Big One), comes back wounded and emotionally traumatized and eventually develops into a Pulitzer Prize-winning political activist-writer-lecturer who is labeled a "pinko" and a "commie."

And there is more . . . all the way through another generation, the year 1973 and roughly 600 pages. Fully half the book seems to be told through flashback memories. Sometimes the reader is buffeted from one character's memory to another's on the same page, and whole chapters are given over to catching up on past weeks, months and years. Every major national disaster is utilized to project a sense of time and place, to anchor the Tiernan family in every twist and turn of the national psyche. Famous personalities are cited as friends -- even the sad memory of Sharon Tate is momentarily dredged up, along with Bette and Errol and Joan and Judy, all in an effort to establish the idea of a Tiernan family theatrical tradition. All proves for naught, since it is not the tradition of theater that binds them but family relationships, accidents of birth. "Dynasty," or even "As the World Turns," would describe this book far better.

Janice Rotchstein's exhaustive research -- the acknowledgments listing takes 70 closely packed lines -- has garnered her a spot on the title page as collaborator. As far as I can tell, Rotchstein's massive detail -- covering Hollywood at work and at play, as well as the inner workings of radio, television, Broadway, publishing, the European art world, Washington politics, Canada, London, Paris, Vietnam, teaching brain damaged people to speak again, etc., etc, etc. -- is accurate. But it has been trivialized by Ebert's attempts to touch all the bases, to create a mammoth movie-television epic, and by his stilted, shallow, cumbersome prose.

Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon have nothing to fear.