"It was seven o'clock in the evening when, on the thirty-fifth floor of the Evans Building, which towers over the rushing and romantic waters of the Potomac River and houses the overflow from the Russell Senate Office Building, Joe (Hot Potato) Murphy and Pete (Kitten) Sikorski resolved to work late on something that had just turned up on the printout.

"Joe and Pete had semi-official access to the big CIA computer along the river. Both were ex-Company men. Now they were part of the big new up-and-coming Ivel for President team . . ."

What's to say?

Fay Weldon has made a mistake--not an uncommon one and certainly not fatal--but a bad mistake nevertheless.

Fay Weldon is a British novelist. She is not famous, but she is known to be talented, observant, intelligent and concerned. Author of "Female Friends" and "Remember Me," she portrays women well and understands a great deal about the depths of their friendships with each other. For this she must be respected.

"The President's Child," however, is a clear symptom that Weldon has temporarily succumbed to commercial impatience and has made a reckless bid to break out of the pack by writing a novel about personalities rather than characters. In the realm of fiction, this is the kiss of death.

In a world photographed--if not designed--by People magazine, a novelist can easily go astray.

If power corrupts, the prospect of popularity (or literary notoriety) corrodes and kills like a cancer.

The heroine of this book is Isabel, a smart, sexy, successful BBC personality who is married to a nice guy who doesn't know their son is really the product of Isabel's comically cosmic love affair with Dandy Ivel--current contender for the Democratic presidential nomination and latest fictional reincarnation of JFK.

The plot is an awkward melodrama in which Dandy's bodyguards decide they have to do "something" about Isabel and her kid who looks too much like his daddy. The bodyguards--Joe and Pete--are comic strip characters who murder one of Dandy's girlfriends because she claimed Dandy wasn't very dandy in the sack. If you don't believe this, here it is:

"As Pete remarked--for Joe, after the deed, seemed fidgety and uneasy, and not suffused by postcoital calm, as he had vaguely supposed he would be--they could hardly have let Vera go round Washington claiming the Democratic candidate for the presidency was a sexual inadequate. If she'd chosen her words more carefully, shown sense or self-control or a due reverence for anything at all, she could perhaps have lived."

From this you can gather the grave danger in which Isabel finds herself--and let's just leave her there--an endangered species. Instead, let's focus upon some of Weldon's strengths.

The book is set on Wincaster Row in Camden Town on the fringes of central London. Weldon shows her real wares in describing the residents of this small community. "For the most part we are communicators--we teach, or work in television or films or publishing or are in some way connected with the theater, or think we ought to be."

A neighbor, who was unfortunately (both for us and for her) blinded from running into the street with her eyes full of tears after a fight wth her husband over one of his infidelities, is able to say at one point: "Smiles. I had forgotten smiles--they make so little noise."

Why should a writer capable of such stylish simplicity succumb to hysterical hyperbole?

Some of Weldon's love scenes are good. Some of her mother-child scenes are honest and authentic. A number of her social observations are acute. Somehow the author's intelligence survives and shimmers beneath the scenes of this disaster.

Indeed, the book as a whole is rather carefully constructed. The stupidity of the ending is actually--as it ought to be--implicit in the beginning. The tone is consistent and the dialogue on key.

What we can learn from this book is that contemporary novelists must ignore the hype of our society. Literary passages can still be written about a child who isn't the illegitimate son of a president. Glimpses of love between people who are not political candidates or media stars are still valuable. Portraits of characters who will never be photographed in tight designer jeans for People magazine continue to remain important.

In fact, characters, not personalities, are the stuff of literature.

Enough said.

On to the next one, Fay Weldon. A number of your "Female Friends" say "Remember Me."