ALICE IN EXILE

By Piers Paul Read

St. Martin's. 344 pp. $24.95 Some tedious critic once said about a totally reputable writer that he or she hadn't "broken the boundaries of the pre-Joycean novel." Well, here's another writer who hasn't broken those boundaries, and thank God for it. "Alice in Exile" is profoundly conventional, absolutely old-fashioned, and I confess to having missed a highly advertised fiesta in a Mexican mountain town just so I could stay in the hotel and find out what happened, from 1913 to 1920, to Alice Fry, her ninny upper-class English lover, Edward Cobb, and her aristocratic Russian protector, Pavel Rettenberg, who ends up being the love of her life.

Alice Fry is everything the heroine of a novel should be. She's amazingly beautiful, highly educated, has a mind like the proverbial steel trap, orders her clothes from Worth and is madly interested in all the new ideas of her day. When she meets Edward Cobb, scion of one of England's greatest families, she at first high-mindedly doesn't think of marriage. She's an intellectual; her father publishes radical works, her mother is a practical Frenchwoman. Alice frowns on marriage, thinking of it as an enslaver of women. But she reads one of her father's books on human sexuality, and because of Edward's pleasing ways, easy demeanor and too many cocktails drunk in one evening, they become lovers. Because Edward is a man of honor, he proposes; she accepts.

His family has a conniption fit. Edward backs off. Little does he know she's pregnant. In fact, little do any of them know about anything! The reader is privy to the delicious knowledge that the "civilized" world is about to go to Hell in a thousand handbaskets: The western side of Europe is skidding headlong into World War I, and over in Russia, the serfs have had just about enough of the czar and the whole tiresome system that keeps 80 percent of the population illiterate, wretched and starving.

So when the pregnant, jilted Alice Fry jumps at the chance to become governess to the children of Baron Pavel Rettenberg, the reader knows she's taking a slow train from the frying pan into the fire, but she doesn't know. Alice has had a small taste of the affluent life at the Cobb family home, but the baron's vast holdings, his 3,000 serfs, mesmerize her. She's a young, spirited woman -- in trouble, certainly, having that baby -- but enjoying an adventure as well. The baron lives in his own baroque dream world; he's a decent man, five times as smart as the lamebrained Edward Cobb, but he fancies himself a man of the world, a connoisseur of "horses and women." He's unable to take in the nature of life around him.

Edward marries the wrong girl. Alice gets more and more pregnant. The baron plans her seduction as soon as her baby is weaned, but Serbia and Austria and Turkey and France and God-knows-who all are tuning up for a massacre, and presto! There it is. Edward ends up in the trenches, his wrong wife is in bed with somebody else, the baron and his eldest son are called into service, people die like flies all over Europe, and two of the world's biggest powers are set to take a major beating. The czar goes on playing dominoes.

From this part of the novel, the characters break down into those who "get it" about life and those who would rather die than get it. (The author is particularly wonderful about the heedless, hedonistically delusional world in which many White Russians choose to live after the Reds take over.)

The main message of "Alice in Exile" is that all the social systems and military might and patriotic rhetoric and material wealth can't save you if the world chooses to get the hiccups during your lifetime. Good manners, good deeds, chance encounters, fortunate romances, gifts of food, a blanket or two, might save you, but there's no guarantee. Even society's leaders, the ruling class, aren't all that safe. Love, whatever that may actually be, might work some magic. Or maybe not.

Alice, Edward, Rettenberg, all suffer terribly. Many of their friends and relatives die in awful ways. Alice will end up "knowing" love and death, and both these flawed men behave as elegantly as they can manage. The war in Western Europe ends; the regime in Russia changes, we as readers know the world will calm down for 20 years or so. But that's a convenient delusion. And we know that, too.