THE HEARTS AND LIVES OF MEN<i> by Fay Weldon (Dell Publishing: $4.95) </i>

“Reader, I am going to tell you the story of Clifford, Helen and little Nell,” begins the narrator of Fay Weldon’s inventive, satirical fairy tale.

Helen is an intelligent, pretty 22-year-old who eventually becomes a successful fashion designer. Clifford, at 35, is a rising celebrity, a London art dealer and charmer who picks up, trades and discards women the way he might works of art. They marry, share brief moments of conjugal bliss, then divorce.

Through these rocky circumstances, their daughter Nell is a survivor, even as she is kidnaped and later presumed lost in a plane crash. In fact, she is alive and provides not only the moral center of the novel but its source of a series of picaresque adventures: Nell lands in the clutches of a pair of Satanic magicians, only to be placed in a children’s home for the emotionally disturbed, then taken to a Gypsy commune in Wales.

In the end, the precious amulet that she has kept with her all her life reunites Nell with her parents, and Clifford and Helen remarry. An imaginative work of Dickensian scope set in the ‘60s.