Worshippers of the Mother will welcome Chernin's bold if melodramatic first novel, which expands her non-fiction explorations of women's heritage and politics (The Obsession; In My Mother's House) into the realms of religion, myth and time travel. A sect of visionary Jewish women, the Hovrodnik, or Flame Bearers, goes back to Old Testament times in its worship of a female god, Chochma, The Mother; teachers, healers and pacifists, the Hovrodnik keep no sacred book--their history, both group and individual, is kept alive through memory and storytelling among its membership. The Shami family, as it happens, has produced one Flame Bearer per generation since the old times, and its present member is Hannah Leah, now an old woman dying in a San Francisco rest home who wants to pass the torch (literally) to her wild, red-haired granddaughter Rae, who, resentful and afraid of becoming ""the successor,"" has stayed away on the East Coast for ten years. (Feminists by definition, committed to nonviolence, sometimes potential Flame Bearers do go astray, as, during the late 19th century in Russia, when Hannah Leah's older sister threw the bomb that killed Czar Alexander the Second.) Rae does return to San Francisco, but gets involved in flirting with her cousin's husband and so misses, by ten minutes, seeing the old woman alive. Although Rae's part of the story seems ponderous and overwritten, it's more than made up for by the flashback parts told by the old woman in a voice as engaging as those in Isaac Bashevis Singer's tales of villages, bathhouses and possession--and, too, the ultimate reconciliation between granddaughter and grandmother--beyond the grave--is quite touching. In all, Chernin keeps us interested mainly through her energetic re-creation of the past.