HARVEST

By Belva Plain

Delacorte. 409 pp. $21.95

Belva Plain's "Harvest" could as easily have been titled "Evergreen: The Legacy." As with so many sequels, its yield is scant.

"Evergreen," as half the population must remember from either the best-selling novel or the television miniseries, is a meaty work with a large cast of characters who catch you up in their rags-to-riches struggles through the first half of this century. "Harvest" aims to pick up the threads of these stories, but the pampered descendants we meet in Plain's sequel are not nearly so sympathetic or involving as were their Jewish immigrant parents.

Anna, the original novel's heroine, recedes into the background, and her whiny, self-absorbed daughter Iris becomes a main character. As a shy young woman in "Evergreen," she was not particularly engaging, but there she was a minor element in a rich matrix. Taking center stage in this new work as a jealous housewife who frets about her husband Theo's penchant for flirtation and the foibles of her four coddled children, she hasn't the stuff of compelling protagonists. Neither does her oldest son, Steve, who foreshadows his future as a '60s campus radical by humiliating his parents at his bar mitzvah.

One of the most dramatic events in the book occurs when Iris, in a jealous rage, inadvertently slams the car door on her husband's hand and ruins his career as a surgeon. Theo must abandon his lucrative practice and study to change his specialty to oncology. The family is forced to give up its glass-and-redwood custom-built palace and move to an ordinary three-bedroom in the middle-income suburbs. "Theo will hate this place, {Iris} thought, as she watched him maneuver his Mercedes into the narrow garage at the end of the short driveway."

Yes, and Iris's teenage daughter hates her tiny bedroom (" 'Oh Mom, it's horrible!' she wailed ..."), and Theo is not pleased to have to give up the country club and the rented Caribbean villa. But really, folks, their loss doesn't stack up with the sweeping highs and lows of "Evergreen," which is played out against the backdrop of two world wars and the stirring immigrant struggle to climb the American ladder of success.

Yes, largely out of their own foolish foibles, Theo and Iris slip down a rung or two in "Harvest." But it's plain they are firmly enough placed to scramble right back to the top. The same is true of their humorless radical son, whose naive willingness to wreak havoc in the name of a political cause is, I suspect, not going to play so well to readers who've just lived through a terrorist decade. "Evergreen" was packed with sympathetic characters. "Harvest" offers few.

Of these few, the most appealing is Paul Werner, Anna's lost love and secretly Iris's natural father. Like a fairy godmother in pin stripes, he pops up throughout the story to rescue the members of his undeclared family from their own folly. He bankrolls Theo's reeducation in oncology, thus saving Iris's marriage and tottering sanity. When Steve's girlfriend is killed in a bombing incident and he decides to give up violent radical activity, Paul uses his high-level connections to get him a cushy position in an influential Washington think tank. One can only hope that such jobs aren't actually dispensed like this!

"Harvest" is not entirely without charm, and, like its predecessor, it does have moments of piercing insight about the ironies of family life. As Iris reflects at Steve's disastrous bar mitzvah, so often things aren't the way they look to outsiders. "Who would guess? Here we are, such a good-looking family -- yes, we are; prosperous, successful and happy we seem ..."

As she and Theo endeavor to keep themselves and their family together through the turbulent '60s, Iris is repeatedly forced to take note of the gulf between appearance and reality, as are we all. Paul, too, comments on life and its mysteries with a sagacity that mirrors Anna's astuteness in the earlier novel. Still, these perceptive interludes can't compensate for the story's weaknesses, its lack of riveting conflict, its characters who seem so anemic compared with the original's.

A hardcover novel with a hefty price tag -- even one with a famous parent -- should have enough of its own starch to stand alone, and "Harvest" doesn't. Nevertheless, the many readers who loved "Evergreen" will probably want to buy "Harvest" anyway. Just keep in mind that "Evergreen" and "Harvest" are like the old tune about love and marriage. You can't have one without the other. Or rather, you can't have the second without the first.

The reviewer is the author of more than 30 published novels. Under the pseudonym of Jane Silverwood, she has written a trilogy, "The Byrnside Inheritance," which will be published early next year.