Caryl Rivers wrote a very funny novel called "Virgins," about growing up Catholic in the '50s. Her characters, having emerged more or less intact from Academies of the Blessed This and That, have now returned in "Girls Forever Brave and True" to take on Washington in the 1960s.

The '60s are not quite so easily satirized. And the Washington political world is already so close to comic that writers frequently strain too hard in their attempt to make it funny. When Rivers makes her Washington work, it is because her characters treat the most ridiculous doings as absolutely normal.

*Constance Masters, who dreamed girlish dreams of life as a New Yorker writer, has finally worked her way out of the suburbs and into a job as a Washington party reporter. At the home of Famous Hostess Kitty Cohen, she finds herself squished flat on the floor by the secretary of the interior. "He's passed out naked again," her hostess sighs.

But not to worry, a wiggle here and a heave-ho there and Constance is out from under, able to resume her career, end her marriage and have an affair. Kitty Cohen is part powerbroker, part blase' hostess who amuses Constance with her knowledge of Washington: "You would be amazed, my dear, at the wide variety of sexual practices in our stuffy little town. There is a subcabinet official who likes to wear a black dress and pearls. He went out like that when he was in Geneva for the SALT talks."

Perversions are also beginning to haunt the mind of the Kissing Priest. Sex is a plague on Sean McCaffrey's priesthood, troubling his nights and even sliding in through the rectory mail slot in the form of a pornographic magazine called "Summer Fun With Big John and Vivecca." His pastor at St. Ignatius Loyola is convinced that it's a plot: the destruction of the Catholic Church through the dissemination of smut.

The madness of the '60s is a fit subject for satire, but satire requires a harsher eye. Caryl Rivers is not just sympathetic to her characters but to their causes. What she has written is a gentle, comic love story into which the furor of the '60s rather awkwardly intrudes. The war in Vietnam and the rage of black activists are used as props to set the stage. What really affects the characters is love. Of course they survive love's traumas. Rivers has written a slight novel that is short on insight, but its gentleness and humor make it a pleasure to read.