A stiff but sometimes moving debut about a day in the life of an 88-year-old woman. The often crotchety Ruth has lived for 20 years in a condominium complex in southern California, wondering ``How in God's name'' her life ``could have turned out like this?'' In pondering that question, she recalls a life in which ``She had been prudent. She had risked little. She had lost little. She had chosen correctly.'' And yet things still pull terribly at her heart: For decades, she's been ``marooned with a moron,'' her kind but foolish second husband; her granddaughter is married to a man whom Ruth finds self-interested and irresponsible; and her health, at long last, seems to be failing (she sees white lights, feels pangs, has spells). The secret core of Ruth's emotional life is her keen yearning for her first husband, Hale, who died long ago of a bizarre virus. During Ruth's reminiscences, we get glimpses of characters from the past--an opera-singing aunt who tricked her way into marriage to account for a pregnancy; a flamboyant friend from UCLA who owns a racy lingerie shop--as well as characters from the present, like Ruth's understanding and beloved cleaning ``girl'' Luzma and her little son Luis. Phillips's task--to write interestingly about the confined doings of an ancient, guarded, set-in-her-ways person who feels that life has passed her by--is a daunting one; and, while the events and details of Ruth's mundane life of TV dinners, old photos, and crotchety habits aren't always either captivating or patently charming, her day--an outing, a meal, a visit--nevertheless draws to a close (``The past seemed to steer her'') in small and genuine steps amidst passages of writing (``Life, she thought, was so incredibly temporary. Nothing ever lasted, nobody ever stayed'') that can draw strongly on a reader's heart, however briefly. An ambitious first novel, in all, that suggests a strong emerging talent.