By Alice Mattison

Morrow. 278 pp. $24

Walking chilly New England streets in 1975, Toby Ruben, a young housewife, keeps her nose in a book and somehow lets her new baby fall out of his carriage right onto the sidewalk--oops! The book has been lent to her by a new acquaintance, a "park" friend, another young mom with a couple of kids. A configuration that will forever change two lives--maybe even more strongly than first love--has been set in motion. Toby Ruben and Deborah Laidlaw will be best friends until one of them dies.

It's an attraction of opposites. Ruben (for she likes to go by her last name) is somewhat angry, jealous, competitive, Jewish and very smart. She's not a terribly "good" person. Deborah is sweet, bland, affectionate, Gentile and dull. The two women are thrown together by the exigencies of family and children, and the stories of their lives are gently, mercilessly told. (Even in this day and age, I can't imagine a man picking up this book voluntarily. Everything in it goes to a pool of knowledge that men--in general--don't want to know about: what gets cooked for dinner day after day, how dusty the front hall stairs are, how wives spend their time and how cavalierly those women talk about their men: On Page 2, at the very dawn of their friendship, "When their conversation, skipping some subjects, arrived at sex and husbands, Deborah said, Jeremiah has intercourse only to music.") This is a novel primarily about life inside of houses, the making of domestic civilizations, although both women still teach, and Ruben will work for years in a kitchen appliance shop.

The book Ruben has borrowed, a memoir written in 1964, recalls earlier, darker days. "Trolley Girl," written by Miriam James, records life in a desperately poor Jewish immigrant slum in 1920. Miriam's father and mother are terrified, only semi-civilized, always in a rage. Her older sister, Jessie, shares this rage against the general injustice of American life. Jessie becomes an anarchist in her teens and storms about doing anything she can to bring down the government, but in realistic terms there's not much one teenage girl can do, especially in the godforsaken mill town of Boynton, Mass. She does become active in a trolley strike, however, and something terrible happens.

Which is about the time Ruben does something terrible to her best friend, gets caught at it, and Deborah ends the friendship. Ruben, traumatized, puts the borrowed book away and forgets it.

Ten years later we see that the friendship still exists. There's no explanation for it; the probability is that along with being bland and dull, Deborah is a very forgiving person. The women put together careful family lives: This novel is extraordinary in its quiet depictions of perfect afternoons where nothing much happens except the emotional equivalent of watching paint dry--watching the children grow up, and then watching them grow up some more.

How did Deborah happen to lend Ruben "Trolley Girl" in the first place? Because her husband, Jeremiah, is a fiend for trolleys, a hobbyist and trolley historian. He has a vigorous inner life, which he's more than happy to talk about; he loves the idea of the old interurban streetcars zipping from one city to another. "Trolley Girl" is his favorite book, and by one of those small-world coincidences he's found out that Jessie, that fiery, headstrong anarchist, went away to Europe to reinvent herself as Berry Cooper, a working sculptor. Whatever became of her? Only Jeremiah really cares.

And Ruben does something terrible to her best friend once again. She can't seem to help herself; she's mean as a snake. But even snakes get to have friends. The next flash-forward catches the women at that scary time when the kids go off to college (or not), get decent jobs (or not), turn out to be solid citizens (or not). It's that moment in a domestic life when you get to notice whether all the new parkas and clean knee socks and homemade meals and excursions with the kids are going to pay off; whether you did it right or not.

There's some weirdness in Ruben, and unfortunately she seems to have passed it down to her son. It looks like it's part of the DNA. That's what "The Book Borrower" is about. Considering the fact most of us have great-grandparents or grandparents or parents who came here from somewhere else (and that "somewhere else" could not have been a picnic), and considering the fact that so many of us come from terrified and violent peasant stock struggling up from the depths of the most severe poverty, how long will it take any of us to become really "civilized"? What part does "art" play in the process? And "respectability"? Is there really an essential difference between a "good" person and a "bad" one, as long as they love equally?

"The Book Borrower" looks at these lofty questions but always in the most mundane, quotidian contexts. Our lives may take their defining turns when we're chopping vegetables or teaching freshman comp. Our great task is to pay attention and try to be kind, if we can.

Carolyn See, whose reviews appear in Style on Fridays.


The following books are scheduled to be reviewed next week in Style:

THE TRUST: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times, by Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones. Reviewed by James Bowman.

KOSOVO: A Short History, by Noel Malcolm, and KOSOVO CROSSING: American Ideals Meet Reality on the Balkan Battlefields, by David Fromkin. Reviewed by Michael Dobbs.

THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF JOHN NICOL, MARINER, edited by Tim Flannery. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.

FINDING MY VOICE, by Diane Rehm. A memoir of struggle and survival by the noted public radio host. Reviewed by Reeve Lindbergh.

WHITE ROSE, by Amy Ephron. An American journalist and a beautiful revolutionary meet in this novel set in Cuba in the 1890s and based on real-life events. Reviewed by Carolyn See.