This exceptionally intelligent and appealing first novel is being compared by its publisher, for promotional purposes, to Judith Guest's "Ordinary People." The comparison isn't mere hype. Like Guest's novel, Annie Greene's has come from an utterly unknown writer and has convinced its surprised publisher that its literary merits are matched by its commercial possibilities. Also like Guest, Greene has a feel for the emotional undercurrents of middle-class American life that is too rarely encountered in what passes for serious fiction in this country these days.

If anything, the class about which Greene writes is lower-middle. "Bright River Trilogy" is set in the Maryland town of Hooks Crossing, of which one character says: "What a terrible little town! All the streets slide down to Bright River where the dank smell of the tomb floats in the shallows with the trash. All the buildings of the town seem to lean toward the water as though seeking its power for their small pretensions." The town is country but the city is encroaching on it; there's probably not much time left to it to be a small town, to lead the hermetic, self-contained life that Greene describes.

The novel is called a trilogy because it has three narrators: Lilly Blunt, Ellen Gibbs and Jessie Talbot. In varying degrees and for different reasons the lives of all three have been deeply affected by Lilly's son, Darcy, a man in his early thirties who has never taken the trouble to grow up. He's a renegade, a rebel against both the constrictions of small-time life and his memories of his strict, unloving father. He's also an irresistibly lively, energetic, humorous, affectionate man who has what Jessie calls a "jaunty grace that made him seem as if he were free from what other people thought of him," whose smile "promised whatever I would dare to ask."

It's this life-giving force in Darcy that leads all three women to turn to him in hopes of easing the pain they feel from losses and mistakes in their own lives. Lilly is haunted by the terrible memory of her husband's suicide, committed after being discovered in a land-fraud scheme; Jessie, a schoolteacher, has fled her job in Baltimore after being rejected, in a most humiliating way, by the man she loved; Ellen is about to marry a man whom she does not love in the vain hope of breaking her history of promiscuity. Jessie speaks for all of them when she says:

"I smoothed the pages of the book in my lap and looked at Darcy. Dad had nodded off. His quiet snore was the only sound in the room. Darcy lifted the can of beer to his lips. When he tilted his head, his jaw was sharply drawn, his cheekbones taut against the skin. The shadows under his eyes seemed lightly drawn as if they would vanish easily in his smile. He's a handsome man, I thought. And I wondered at his being with us at all, his lean-edged energy at rest in our house. He had come into our life and become somehow an arranger of it. It was as if he became the storyteller of our life and through the words he set us all into configurations varied as the stars."

But Darcy is a man, not a saint, and he can only do so much for these three women. He turns out to be a catalyst rather than a savior, in the end leaving all of them to work out their own responses to their problems but also giving them, in the memory of his powerful energy, the vitality to do so. Most of all he has given them the knowledge of a love offered without price, a love that is all-embracing and affirmative; he is a flawed man but at his core a wonderfully good one, and none of them comes away from him unaffected.

This being the case it is somewhat surprising that of the novel's four principal characters, Darcy is the least fully realized. We see him less as a discrete individual than as a character, part fact and part fancy, who lives in the minds of the three narrators. But this is no great flaw and it may indeed be an intentional device: How Darcy matters most, Greene seems to be saying, is not as himself but as a man who changed the lives of others. And those others are beautifully portrayed. To give a novel three narrators is a daring gamble; to make them equally distinct and believable is a very considerable feat. Annie Greene has done this and much more in "Bright River Trilogy," a tough-minded and tenderhearted book that deserves all the success that seems to be in store for it.