The British author of The Directrix (1991)--a hilarious, pertinent display of political infighting in a tumultuous nunnery- -has unfortunately, in this tale about three women friends through the years, opted for an overlay of sobersided sentiment. Quiet, polite Liz, only child of ruthless Alderman Stockdale and his silly snob of a wife, has a ``posh'' background. Chrissy, raised by eccentric Aunt Julia (dangling cigarette and bowel remedies), has a fairly ``good'' address. But Nell, the brilliant one, expert at skewering writing and sketches, is one of several offspring of a bitter working-class father who welcomes intellect- -but also drink. The three meet at eleven, a ``dissident trio'' who go through school together, play daring pranks, undergo crushes and awful summer jobs, and part ways at university and marriage. But the triangle remains intact as the women call for help in crises. As a teenager, Liz apologized to the wife of the rotter (she'd once believed him ``a tragic hero'') with whom she'd had an affair. (Did Nell have a muddied motive in persuading Liz to go all the way?) Now, in the present, Liz anguishes for her 18-year-old daughter as another version of her ``tragic hero'' lurks. Nell, a famous journalist, survived youth with a dangerous dad, and a startling secret affair, but now she faces the most terrifying crisis of all. Chrissy, married to the ``little creep'' she'd snarled at as a teenager, is still a happy mother. The three gather in love and strength. ``A triangle...is a strong shape.'' Occasionally Rowntree indulges in a touch of the wit that crackled in The Directrix, but there's a kind of dreamy sameness to the narrative, and the impression made by the three women and their crises just doesn't burn deep enough.