Almost from birth it was clear that Ellen Gulden was golden. In high school she won the state essay contest and was class valedictorian. At Harvard she graduated magna cum laude before taking a job at a New York City magazine, where she is a rising star. Fueled by her professor father's approval—or, perhaps, fueled by the need for his approval—she has plans to go far. Those plans are abruptly put on hold when Papa orders an unwilling Ellen home to nurse her mother, Kate, who has just been given a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Frankly, Ellen has never given much thought to her mother, sick or healthy. She has little interest and less regard for that which so thoroughly occupies Kate: cooking, handicrafts and nest building.
During the subsequent months of forced intimacy, Ellen begins paying attention and learns some truths, not all of them attractive, about her father, her mother and herself. Quindlen, a former New York Times op-ed columnist, affectingly captures specific moments: Ellen sitting through chemotherapy sessions with Kate, helping a fragile Kate out of the bathtub and witnessing the extent of her mother's deterioration. But the author underlines every step of the way for her readers, busily explaining the significance of such moments rather than letting them speak for themselves. And too often, Quindlen seems more intent on sharing her apercus than on telling her regrettably schematic story. "For a while," Ellen notes at one point, "I thought about doing what I had always done... when I wrote compositions or poetry in class, spinning synthetic emotions out of the silky yarn of intelligence." The teacher "would send my poems back with the dismissive 'Clever-... but?' or the softer 'Nice language, but where are you in here?' " Precisely. (Random House, $22)