The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver. New York: Harper & Row. 232 pp. $16.95. This refreshingly perceptive first novel celebrates a young woman's coming of age in an unusual setting peopled by wonderfully outrageous characters. In a neatly constructed tale, Barbara Kingsolver gives readers something that's increasingly hard to find today - a character to believe in and laugh with and admire.

Taylor Greer jump-starts her elderly '55 Volkswagen bug one fine day and lurches out of the grinding poverty of Pittman County, Ky., bound for a better life somewhere out West. The VW makes it as far as Arizona, and Taylor figures that's as good a place as any to stop for repairs. In addition to four busted tires, she suddenly has a child to care for - an abused, catatonic Indian baby thrust into her arms at an Oklahoma stopover by a frightened Cherokee woman.

The challenges are formidable, but so are Taylor's resources. She lands a job fixing spares at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires and finds a housemate in Lou Ann Ruiz, another transplanted Kentuckian and single mother. Together, they reminisce about potato-chip casseroles and Coca-Cola cake at church potluck suppers back home and get on with the day-to-day trials of raising kids and bringing some focus to their own lives.

The scenario has a familiar ring, as does its independent and irreverent '80s heroine. But Kingsolver delivers enough original dialogue and wry one-liners to put this novel on a shelf of its own: Taylor disparages the traffic out West as ``moving about the speed of a government check'' and recalls that when she crossed into Rocky Mountain time, ``I had set my watch back two hours and got thrown into the future.''

That's not to say this is merely laugh-a-minute fluff, however. The tire-repair shop where Taylor works is also a safe house for Central American refugees, and as she gradually learns about the suffering some of her new-found friends have endured, she begins to make her own significant commitment to protecting their hard-won freedom. This is character development at its richest, with Taylor growing from happy-go-lucky hillbilly to caring friend and parent. When her daughter ``Turtle'' (nicknamed for her fierce grip) utters her first recognizable sound - a laugh - it is a moving moment. Garish Days, by Lynn Caraganis. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 214 pp. $15.95.

Lynn Caraganis, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The Atlantic, wields an elegant pen - and that may be reason enough to snap up this entertaining story about the heady pre-World War II years on the Continent. But readers looking for something more than period window dressing, or for insights approaching those of F. Scott Fitzgerald, will be disappointed.

The time is Jazz Age 1930s, the place Paris. Enter 19-year-old Louise Merrill, perky fashion buyer for a Columbus, Ohio, department store, on her first trip abroad. Standing in the wings are a couple of bright and witty Yalies, one handsome French Jew, and a gaggle of understudies who drop all the right names, from Elsa Maxwell and Hedy Lamarr to Ray Milland with ``his little lips tucked in.'' There are shipboard scenes of great charm, and the costumes are delicious. Moreover, Caraganis turns many a lovely phrase to capture the quicksilver exuberance of those days when ``Wally Simpson was the most famous woman in the world,'' and everyone ``despised Hitler, but that was about all there was to it.''

The stage is superbly set, but what is missing is a commanding leading lady and a provocative raison d'^etre. When Louise dresses for a Chanel opening or surveys the sights on the Champs-'Elys'ees, the reader hangs on her every observation. But when she looks over ``the front page of the Paris Herald ... avoiding words like `Sudetenland' and `Chamberlain' - anything that had to do with politics,'' one has to wonder if she's meant to be quite so vapid. The novel is designed as the memoir of an elderly woman, but as she looks back on the gaiety of her youth, it's difficult to tell how she herself feels about what she sees. Readers will enjoy the sights she shares but will be left wondering if that's all there was to it. The final curtain, alas, falls to sparse applause. Arts and Sciences, by Thomas Mallon. New York: Ticknor & Fields. 210 pp. $16.95.

This is another entertaining first novel, a coming-of-age romp through the not-so-hallowed halls of the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences with a likable hero of the politically volatile '70s. It will appeal mostly to those who made a similar trek in time and place, and perhaps to those who are looking for a diverting read.

Artie Dunn, class of '73, ``whose social skills were embryonic,'' whose ``ignorance of music composed before 1965 was profound,'' has his work cut out for him as he tries to make the shift from undergraduate days in blue-collar Providence to the understated coffeeshops of Harvard Square. Not only that, but he's smitten with a beautiful Brit in his afternoon Symposium, the superficially classy Angela Downing.

Boy chases girl, somebody catches somebody, and at novel's end, they're still in each other's clutches, apparently for good. So much for plot. So much for meaningful lessons learned.

There is much to enjoy here, however, including finely honed descriptions of bizarre goings on, both in Artie's dorm and in the White House.

But a novel that begins with the phrase ``Translating 40 lines of Greek is hard work in the most tranquil circumstances'' has arguably limited appeal, and after a while the comical self-deprecation begins to wear thin, what with Artie's ``law-abiding head'' and ``scholarship-boy soul.'' One keeps wishing he would seize the horn of some dilemma - any dilemma.

When Angela admonishes him to ``stop being the slack-jawed ninny,'' readers will nod in agreement.

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