THIS SIDE OF MARRIED

By Rachel Pastan

Viking. 259 pp. $23.95

This first novel is amiable enough, in a soap opera sort of way, but it brings nothing so readily to mind as Horace's "Ars Poetica," in which is written: "The mountains will be in labor, and a ridiculous mouse will be brought forth." Consider, please, the press release that accompanied bound proofs of "This Side of Marriage." It made much ado about the author's resume:

"Rachel Pastan received her undergraduate degree from Harvard College and an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her short stories have been published in Mademoiselle, Threepenny Review and Arts and Letters. She has received the Arts and Letters Fiction Prize, the PEN Syndicated Fiction award and fellowships from the Wisconsin Arts Board and the Delaware Arts Council. In addition, Ms. Pastan has taught writing at Edgewood College, the Writers' Place in Madison, Wisconsin, and Swarthmore College."

All that for this? All those hours in class, critiquing and being critiqued; all those piddling prizes; all those teaching sinecures -- all that forced marching through literary apprenticeship as it's now defined in this country to produce a novel that has approximately as much heft as an episode of "Friends" or "Sex and the City"? Is that what they're teaching in the writing schools and lavishing awards upon -- Sitcom 101?

"Reminiscent of the work of Laurie Colwin," the publicity copy insists. Balderdash. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, I knew Laurie Colwin, and Rachel Pastan is no Laurie Colwin. Yes, "This Side of Married" is set in and on the outskirts of Philadelphia, where Colwin grew up, and it deals with love and marriage among privileged urbanites, about which Colwin often wrote. But similarities end right there. Colwin was witty, her stories and novels were tightly constructed, and she always had something to say that was both larger and deeper than first impressions suggested. Pastan, by contrast, tries hard -- give her credit for that -- but the reader is always conscious of the effort, the machinations, the faithful adherence to writing-school formula.

The novel is about the three adult daughters of Judge Rubin, a magistrate, and Dr. Rubin, his wife, an obstetrician; both are now in their sixties. The eldest daughter, Alice, 38 years old as the novel begins, is "a lawyer who worked with Central American immigrants at a small nonprofit." The middle daughter, Isabel, 33, trained and for a while worked as a veterinarian but is now working full time at getting pregnant. The youngest, Tina, 29, has "slept with as many men, more or less, as she had lived years on a vexing planet that hid its prizes -- where?"

Dr. Rubin is awash in contradictions. She is "sentimental and tactless," she is "like a steamroller and a puppy at once, a particularly irritating and formidable combination." She steamrolled her way through medical school at a time when most women of her age and class dutifully married and produced babies, and throughout her adult life she has balanced career and parenthood. As a mother she is given to hovering, especially when it comes to marrying off her daughters to nice, upwardly mobile men. Isabel is married to Theo, a lawyer "whose sharpness and determination were a match for her family any day," but Alice and Tina have yet to find "the Right Man," despite an apparent yearning to do so. Thus a conversation between Alice and Isabel ends on this note:

"They both knew that while they were not impoverished ladies of an earlier era for whom marriage 'must be their pleasantest preservation from want,' it was equally true that married life formed the core of their expectations and desires. Whatever they claimed to believe to the contrary, neither of them was likely to be very happy without it."

The quotation within that quotation is of course from "Pride and Prejudice," and there can be no doubt that Austen Territory is where Pastan aims to drive this sport utility vehicle. Her publisher says so: "Jane Austen in Philadelphia -- a sparkling novel of love, marriage, and manners." Well, as has been said in this space many times, authors aren't to be held accountable for claims on their behalf made by their publishers, but you don't need to be a literary shamus to figure out that Pastan has studied Austen with the utmost care. That's fine -- all aspiring writers can profit from close reading of the masters -- but what she has produced is a pale imitation rather than a work of real originality.

She deserves credit on several counts. She's had the guts to create, in Tina, a character who is genuinely unpleasant and is granted no redemption at the end. Her portrait of Dr. Rubin (neither she nor the judge ever gets a first name) is honest ( she is a very difficult woman) but sympathetic and admiring. She gets Philadelphia (a city I once knew well enough to like a great deal) down nicely and accurately:

"She walked east through Old City, where Philadelphia had begun. Here and there you could still stumble across a cobblestone street, across eighteenth-century houses with painted cornices and street mirrors. Beyond Front Street lay the Delaware River, a wide black sleeping snake across the back of which the great bridges arched: the Walt Whitman, the Ben Franklin, the Betsy Ross. She loved the names of them and the way the city, spreading weedlike in three directions (and overrunning even the Schuylkill River as though it were nothing but an irrigation ditch), ended abruptly here in a clean line the way a garden would be edged with a sharp shovel. Amid the smells of car exhaust, and the sulfur of the chemical plants, and the acrid stink of the refineries, she could smell the sea, and her heart lifted."

Yes, "wide black sleeping snake" is a bit much, but that paragraph does say "Philadelphia" in a clear, appealing way. Otherwise, though, Pastan comes up short. The plot is too clotted, and even the surprises are unsurprising because the reader senses within just a handful of pages the general direction in which matters are going to proceed. The handsome Salvadoran gardener and the brash newspaper reporter -- the minute each steps onstage, you know the part he's going to play. One character, a cousin named Soren Zank, is every bit as unbelievable as his name.

The whole enterprise, which means to be light, even frothy, never rises above the labored. If this is what the writing schools are handing out MFAs for these days -- and there's plenty of evidence elsewhere to suggest it is -- then the keys to the joint should just be turned over to "As the World Turns."