If literature were judged solely by its ability to elicit strong emotions, columnist-cum-novelist Quindlen (Object Lessons, 1991) would win another Pulitzer for this wrenching, albeit flawed fiction. After a short prologue about the time she spent in jail, accused of having killed her mother, Katherine, Ellen Gulden quickly skips back to her story's beginning, when the 24-year-old's father guilts her into putting her high-powered New York writing career on hold and moving back to Langhorne, the small college town where she grew up, to care for her mother, who has cancer. Cerebral, high-achieving Ellen has always been more her father's daughter; he is the English department chairman, while Mom is a Martha Stewart-perfect homemaker, the type of woman who canes her own chairs. But she and Ellen begin to influence each other, and it becomes clear that Katherine is attempting to take care of unfinished business in her characteristically graceful way, even as her body rapidly deteriorates. With this relationship Quindlen shines, capturing perfectly the casual intimacy that mothers and daughters share, as well as the friction between women of two very different generations. Male characters are sometimes less successful. Ellen's father is so cold that it's hard to fathom how her gentle mother has stood him for so many years, and Ellen seems a little smart and a little old to still be reeling from the discovery that Dad isn't perfect. Even more unconvincing is Ellen's long-time boyfriend, ruthless and uncaring Jonathan Beltzer. These problems are generally surmounted by Quindlen's practiced storytelling. By the time Katherine's autopsy reveals that she died of a morphine overdose, the jailhouse prologue has almost been forgotten, so the clever mystery ending (complete with satisfying twist) is an added bonus. When Quindlen gets it right -- which is often -- she places herself in the league of Mary Gordon and Sue Miller.