SEVENTH HEAVEN

By Alice Hoffman

Putnam. 256 pp. $19.95

In the '50s, when June and Ward, Harriet and Ozzie and Margaret and Jim into TV rooms and smiled at their own well-being, they loomed like gods of suburbia -- suburbia as a pastoral sanctuary, the comforting prize that democracy had won for defeating Hitler. Not so, says "Seventh Heaven," Alice Hoffman's sharp, suburbia-bashing novel -- the eighth by this increasingly incisive, graceful writer. In the Long Island Everyburg of 1959 and 1960 that she evokes, cropped lawns and family rooms, barbecue pits and patio furniture conjure not freedom but repression.

When Nora Silk comes to town with her two young children, she's greeted with suspicion. She's divorced! Divorce still carries the same stigma and strikes the same blow to respectability as it did when, in the 19th century, Henry James and William Dean Howells took on the subject. Divorce means choice, women on their own, sex with more than one partner in life. Nora is not only unattached but wears stiletto heels, tight capri pants and a French twist hairdo. Elvis lilts from her windows, and her kids aren't always perfectly groomed. She has to work -- selling Tupperware and giving manicures -- but she likes getting out.

When she raises her hand at PTA meetings, she's ignored. No one buys even a slice of the cakes she brings to bake sales, and in the supermarket, the women stare past her, losing themselves in their fat- and sugar-chocked groceries. Nora's older child, school-age Billy, is ostracized more cruelly. He's spat on and beaten. Milk is poured down his collar, making him smell sour. Billy, following Houdini, practices squeezing himself into impossibly tight spaces in attempts to become invisible. Nora, at a loss to understand why she's hated, keeps reaching out.

This outsider -- the carrier of sex, fashion and spontaneity -- generates a ripple effect among her neighbors. Doubts and longings lumber to the surface, causing neck pain, loss of memory. American writers seldom evoke a collective condition, but Hoffman does so deftly in a series of mood pieces in which the narrator hovers over the streets, peering, snooping: "Boys who had never had a thought in their heads found themselves feeling defeated. They thought about their fathers, how they set out the trash cans on the curb, how they could always be found at the kitchen table on Saturday nights, their checkbooks in front of them, stacking up the bills... . They had no idea why thinking about their fathers should make them stumble, why suddenly they couldn't stop wondering what a girl's mouth was like... ."

Hoffman pries off the roofs of five houses, and we're shown the interlocking, soap-opera-tangled relationships of the families, complete with surprise plots and cliffhanger intrigues. In a suggestive sequence, Ace McCarthy, a high school senior, stands apart from his clan and follows his conscience. He rescues an abused dog, the former pet of a girl whose gruesome, degrading death Ace's brother caused. In another vivid story line, 187-pound Donna Durgin Metrecals herself to slimness, then slips out of her quietly brutalizing existence. Hoffman chronicles Donna's circumstances with gleeful rage: "After she had lost eighteen pounds, {her husband} Robert noticed. But instead of telling her he was proud of her, he complained about the price of Metrecal. He started to pick up Carvel on his way home from work... . He left Mounds on the dashboard... ."

"Seventh Heaven" is spiked with feminist wish-fulfillment; most of the women grow freer and happier. Hoffman's signature magical flights -- Nora, deemed a witch, can in fact cast spells -- at times overstate her themes, as does naming the lane where most of the action takes place "Hemlock Street." But these are minor quibbles. Hoffman writes with authority, wit and compassion, gathering the plots into a pointed portrait of suburbia on the eve of the sexual revolution. Her language is sure, at once plain and poetic; her details inspired -- Donna filling up the lid of a yogurt container with her tears, Ace's dog appearing to a love-starved suitor as a werewolf.

Many recent novels take a prurient interest in suburban life and mall culture, inventorying the tastes of K mart shoppers as if poverty and a poverty of choices rendered the people a curious species separate from the writer's. In a tone devoid of affect, brand names are dropped as if they could add up to a point of view. Hoffman, on the other hand, looks down at neither her characters nor her readers. The details in her book about food, appliances and TV shows don't substitute for the novel's emotional truth; they specify the material entrapment the characters upend. "Seventh Heaven" is a consummate joy, unfolding like a dream that's startling yet familiar, a dream of how it was when you had to get younger to grow up.

The reviewer is a columnist for the Village Voice and author of the novel "Starting With Serge."