Barbara Taylor Bradford, Author . Doubleday $24.95 (336p) ISBN

The bestselling grande dame of popular women's fiction is back with her 18th book, after The Triumph of Katie Byrne. Replete with mystery, romance, secrets and conflict, Bradford's latest examines the lives of four women, alumni of an exclusive arts school in Paris, who must confront their stormy pasts when they are invited to attend a special birthday party. Anya Sedgwick, the indomitable doyenne of the school, wants her four favorite pupils to repair their destroyed friendship and help celebrate her 85th birthday. With the exception of Anya, however, none of the protagonists are the sparkling, unforgettable characters Bradford is usually so adept at crafting. Three of the four women, at the apex of their careers only seven years out of school, seem to blend into each other despite their disparate backgrounds. Alexandra is a renowned set designer; Kay has become a successful couturier; Jessica is a top interior designer; and Maria, whose biggest challenge is to lose a considerable amount of weight before the reunion, is slogging away at the family textile business, with a promising painting career on the side. There is some pathos in Kay's background, but the author glosses over the trauma of early sexual abuse; in fact, most of the tensions in the book are glossed over. Even the spat that tore the four apart is a trifle. But Bradford's knack for depicting elegant surroundings and happy-ever-after romance should satisfy most of her fans. (Feb.)