HOT FLASHES By Barbara Raskin St. Martin's. 376 pp. $18.95

ABOUT A THIRD of the way through her new novel, Barbara Raskin provides a catalog of her characters' common qualities, qualities that, in Raskin's view, define an entire generation of women of a certain age (about 45 to 55), at least all the upper-middle class, urban, liberal, well-educated women among them. As Raskin describes the midlife of these one-time Jamesian priestesses of possibility:

"We still hate Scrabble, charades and crossword puzzles, and prefer dogs to cats...{We} find it hard to resist American men who display foreign drugstore sundries on their bathroom shelves. . . . {We} are still suckers for the varoom of a fast sports car ...and high-grade sinsemilla from Humboldt County. . . . We prefer Lily {Tomlin} to Joan {Rivers}, silver to gold, bars to tables, Spanish to French, and south to north."

If you treat that passage like a test in a woman's magazine -- the sort that's headlined "What Kind of Man Should You Marry?" -- you'll have a good idea of how much you'll enjoy Raskin's book. As someone who scored rather low (preferring silver to gold -- imagine!), I liked Hot Flashes; others may love it.

The story line is simple but compelling. Sukie Amram, 50 years old and a recently divorced D.C. magazine writer and minor novelist, dies suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. Three of her closest friends rush to Washington to help Sukie in death as they did in life (arranging the funeral, organizing her papers) and to mourn. In the course of the next few days, the women rehash their own lives as well as that of their dead friend. Each of the three is at something of a standstill. Diana, who serves as the narrator of the novel, is a renowned professor of anthropology, herself recently divorced, who finds it difficult to accept friend Elaine's wisdom about life ("There isn't any more anymore"). Elaine, also divorced and about 30 pounds overweight, is the only friend without a highpowered career. Joanne, streaked blonde writer for glossy magazines who lives in an all-white apartment in New York, is the only one of the friends who is childless although, at 43 the youngest, she may still entertain hope.

Along with their own problems, the friends have to deal with those Sukie left behind. Foremost among them is Sukie's journal, which limns in harrowing detail her misery following her abandonment by her husband, Max; its piercing pathos leads the friends into predictably morbid and less predictably mordant ruminations abut men and marriage. Diana, Elaine and Joanne also have to cope with Sukie's sexy young lover, Jeff, in possession of the only copy of Sukie's latest manuscript and unwilling to turn it over.

Also clustering into Sukie's roomy old house are her ex-husband, himself recently abandoned by the young wife for whom he left Sukie, and a shrink named Norman Naylor whom Sukie dated and who wants to reclaim his porno video-tapes from the dead woman's boudoir. The result is an engaging, often touching, frequently hilarious grappling with the neuroses of frustrated middle-aged women. Thus it comes as no surprise when Sukie's friends conspire to divide up her men as best friends of another era might have selected a favorite piece of jewelry as a memento.

Hot Flashes is far from a perfect novel. It probably would have been better if it had been worse. Barbara Raskin's lengthy explorations into the archaeology of her "Depression babies" slows down the pace of the book too often. As insightful as many of those frolics and detours are, as often as they provide delightful shocks of recognition ("While our sisters married CPA's or orthodontists, we married the medical students"; a '50s coffee table holds "a silver Ronson cigarette lighter . . . and a fruitwood Lazy Susan (religiously oiled after each use, just like our wooden salad bowls"), there's simply too much of a good thing here.

If nothing else, though, Raskin deserves a medal for not excising from her book Max's pronouncement about Sukie's missing manuscript: "The last thing this world needs is another kvetch novel about Jewish husbands." I hope too many reviewers don't use Raskin's own words to nail her. If more of those novels were half so enjoyable as this one, I could go on reading them forever.

Carol E. Rinzler's most recent book is "How to Set Up for A Mah-Jongg Game and Other Lost Arts" (with Joan Gelman).