Summer fiction. Searching for a promised land

Caf'e Nevo, by Barbara Rogan. New York: Atheneum. 320 pp. $17.95. NEVO is the name of the mountain from which, thousands of years ago, Moses saw the Promised Land, a land he was destined never to enter. It is also, in Barbara Rogan's second novel, the name of a fictional, modern-day Tel Aviv caf'e, a place where a colorful parade of characters play out their own search for a promised land.

In many ways, this is an exclusive novel - a Jewish, Israeli tale of coming to terms with individual and national identity and purpose. But though her focus is a narrow one, Rogan has written a novel that outsiders can both enjoy and understand. It's also a book that an outsider can learn something from, especially when it reveals, through the lives of its characters, the emotional crisis of conscience Israel now confronts as it tries to forge its historical ideals into present-day practice.

That much said, however, ``Caf'e Nevo'' is not an intellectual undertaking. It's a well-paced, highly readable novel that makes for enjoyable summer reading. Rogan's manner of storytelling is more formulaic than inventive, but it works well here. It's easy to be drawn in to this story, with its vivid cast of lovers, friends, and enemies. Among them there is a beautiful young artist, a once-successful novelist, a strong-willed kibbutz leader and his idealistic yet disillusioned son, a wife struggling to find herself, an old man who has grown up thorough all the stages of modern Israel.

Rogan weaves the lives of all these characters in and around Caf'e Nevo with a sure narrative hand and the anticipatory skill of a soap opera writer. Perhaps the novel's main weakness is the treatment of its one Palestinian. Although Rogan pierces the self-proclaimed ``racial tolerance'' of one character (and shows him to be a raging, violent bigot), she unfortunately presents her Palestinian as an ugly stereotype - falling prey herself to the hypocrisy she criticizes in her novel.

Sara Terry is a staff writer for the Monitor.

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