LOVERS & FRIENDS by Camille Marchetta, New York: Morrow/Arbor House, 467 pp., $18.95
HOW do you tell literary fiction from popular fiction? Different readers judge differently and, eventually, time tells. In the short run, however, it's easy to see whether a novel is being marketed as ``literary'' or ``popular'': Just look at the cover.
Boldly emblazoned on a stormy purple sky (a photographic sky - ``literary'' fiction boasts artier artwork), the words ``Lovers & Friends'' in sloping silver capitals promise the passion of purple, the glitz of silver. The total effect is like the title shot of a television soap opera. In fact, the author, Camille Marchetta, is a screen and television writer (see box).
Ms. Marchetta's first novel has many of the elements that can make a good soap opera so involving and entertaining: crisp writing, attractive characters whose lives keep intersecting over a long time span, close attention to the nuances of personal relationships, and a solid sense of the world in which these relationships develop and unfold.
``Lovers & Friends'' features David Walton, a brilliant playwright, who falls in love with Sarah Cope, a beautiful, talented English actress. After much agonizing, David leaves his wife and children to marry Sarah, who has already left her husband, a ruggedly charming English actor, for him. After the dust settles, things seem to be working out: Sarah's ex-husband finds a new love; David's children get to spend time with him and soon accept Sarah; the Walton's remain very much in love and have children of their own: They seem a perfect couple.
While David's career goes from strength to strength, Sarah puts hers aside in order to be a perfect wife and mother. Although David does not insist that she give up acting, he is lukewarm in encouraging her to continue. Because she loves him so much, she simply can't bear doing anything that displeases him.
Their love story unfolds toward a tragic conclusion that spawns a lurid celebrity biography. It is in response to this vulgarizing book that the narrator of ``Lovers & Friends,'' one Nikki Collier, well-known photographer and a friend of the Waltons, offers her version of their story.
Nikki herself is part of the story, for it involves the contrast between Sarah's total commitment to David and Nikki's unwillingness to risk her independence by marrying the man in her life, a warm-hearted, understanding civil-rights lawyer.
Nikki worries about love's dangers: She's known and loved David Walton ever since they were both youngsters. A brief affair with him in college has convinced her that being David's friend rather than his lover is the best way of ensuring their relationship will endure. Having rendered herself less vulnerable to David's charms - and flaws - Nikki believes she is better able to ``know him completely and love him despite what she knows.''
``Lovers & Friends'' delivers the promised glamour, but it's not the kind of ostentatious glitz meant to leave wide-eyed readers drooling over designer clothes and beautiful people. The stylishness comes from Marchetta's ability to portray her characters and their milieu with subtlety, insight, and sophistication.
When it comes to passion, what this novel delivers is refreshingly free from histrionics: intelligent, self-aware characters in realistic situations struggling with emotions that are believable.
Although marketed as ``popular'' fiction (and it will indeed make good late-summer reading at the beach), ``Lovers & Friends'' is superior in style and substance to a great deal of what is being marketed as ``literary'' fiction these days.