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One True Thing by Anna Quindlen

One True Thing (1994)

by Anna Quindlen

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,929235,054 (3.86)32



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A young woman sits in jail accused of murder. While she claims that she is in fact innocent of the charges against her, she also says that the crime was actually an act of mercy. She tells everyone who will listen that she may know who committed the crime.

When Ellen Gulden first learns that her mother, Kate, is suffering from cancer, the disease has already become far advanced. Actually, she has always held a special place within her family. As the oldest of three children, Ellen has always been seen as the high achiever of the family; her father's intellectual match, and the person who is most caught in the middle between her parents. So, when her father insists that Ellie quit her job and come home to care for Kate, she feels obligated to fulfill her father's wishes.

However, while everyone else sees Ellen's role in the family as that of the dutiful daughter, she sees herself as very different from her mother. Kate Gulden was always the talented homemaker, the family's popular center, its one true thing. Ellen secretly believes that she will never truly measure up to her mother, no matter what she does. Yet as she begins to spend more time with Kate, Ellen learns many surprising things, not only about herself but also about her mother, a woman she thought she knew so well.

As the days progress for Ellen and Kate, the life choices both women have made are reassessed in this deeply personal and poignant novel, a work of fiction which is inbued with richly detailed and profound insights into the complex lives and relationships of men and women. I have to say that while this book dealt with a very heavy subject, it was still very well-written. In my opinion, Ms. Quindlen treated such a difficult subject with a certain amount of tenderness and sympathy for all involved.

To be perfectly honest, while I came to understand the main character by the end of the story, I would have to say that she didn't have the most appealing personality to start with. I found her to be somewhat annoying and self-absorbed; although she became a more sympathetic character to me the further that I read. I would also say that my initial impressions would perhaps have to be deliberately created by the author. I would give this book a definite A+! ( )
  moonshineandrosefire | Jan 25, 2017 |
I think my expectations were too high based on other books of hers that I had read. After I got about 2/3 through I went almost a week without having time to read and then didn't have a huge desire to pick it back up. I did finish it though and am glad I did because I hadn't guessed the ending correctly. I still think she's a great author - this book just might not have been for me.
( )
  lynnski723 | Dec 31, 2016 |
I have this thing about very popular books--I tend to avoid what everybody else is raving about. Sometimes I'm utterly wrong.

I should have read and appreciated One True Thing years ago. Anna Quinlen is adept at conveying the truth about ambivalence, even with people you love the most dearly. In this story, I found all the ambivalence I felt about taking care of my own mother as she was aging and dying. She tells the truth. Quinlen's writing is superb, her characters have depth and are interesting people. There's everything in there about how, even when you love your parent, you want to have your own life, too. Wonderful book. I'll be going on an Anna Quindlen binge soon. ( )
1 vote smallwonder56 | Apr 5, 2016 |
Ellen Gulden is a 23-year-old up-and-coming magazine writer living in New York City, when her mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer. On a visit home her father tells her that she simply must leave her job and return to help her mother. Kate has always been the quintessential homemaker – excelling at cooking, decorating, sewing, stenciling, needlepoint – every craft and skill to make her house a loving and welcoming home. Ellen has been more like her father – driven and ambitious, given to literary analysis and harsh judgment – but as she spends times with her mother and begins to recognize the hard work and dedication required to be the homemaker Kate is, Ellen arrives at some different conclusions about who she is, who her parents are, and their relationships to one another.

This is a thought-provoking read for several reasons. On the surface it deals with death and dying and the way in which our society treats the terminally ill. When the book opens, Ellen is in jail, accused of the mercy killing of her mother. So the reader immediately knows what the pivotal event will be. Ellen then begins to recall the previous months.

The book then begins to deals with the complicated relationships between adult children and their parents. Ellen is a young woman who has always sought her father’s approval, and diminished the contributions of her mother. Living with them again as an adult, in a difficult and trying situation, she slowly awakens to the truth about herself, her parents and siblings. She develops a much closer relationship with her mother, even though she still resents having to be her caregiver. At the end I always did what she asked, even though I hated it … I tried to do it all without screaming, without shouting, “I am dying with you.”

Ellen comes to recognize the value of true friendship, and how she has held people at bay (and why). She learns that she must forgive – her father, her mother, the townspeople, and, most importantly, herself.

I found this a very compelling read. I was interested and engaged from beginning to end. That being said, there are some scenes which are difficult to read, because Quindlen is brutally honest about what it means to be a caregiver to a terminally ill loved one. Several scenes reminded me of my own efforts to help my mother when she was still at home; her Alzheimer’s having progressed to where she needed constant attention to ensure her safety. Kate’s behavior mirrored my own mother’s resistance to being helped – because she did NOT want to be thought helpless. She had always been the caregiver, she did not want to be the one being cared for.
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1 vote BookConcierge | Jan 13, 2016 |
This novel moved me because of how poignantly and subtly it captures family tragedy. But I came to care about this novel for its principles. In a time when relativism is all the rage in highbrow culture, I wish more modern fiction had the guts to be this honest. It nakedly captures the distance between what we overvalue and what we should value. Yet it never feels high-handed. No small feat. ( )
  DavidPaulKuhn | Jul 9, 2015 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Quindlen, Annaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Jonkheer, ChristienTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For Prudence M. Quindlen
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Jail is not as bad as you might imagine.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
A successful writer returns home to care for her dying mother. It is a gripping, heart-wrenching, and ultimately uplifting story.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0812976185, Paperback)

One True Thing is a film starring Meryl Streep as the cancer-stricken homemaker mother, Renee Zellweger as the daughter who quits her top-dog job to care for her, and William Hurt as the chilly professor who lets the women in the family do the heavy emotional lifting dying requires. But the real star of the project remains former New York Times everyday-life columnist Anna Quindlen, who quit her top-dog job to write novels (and who took time off from college to nurse her own dying mother).

Quindlen hit a nerve with One True Thing, which captures an experience seldom dealt with in popular culture. (One exception: the sensitive 1996 film with Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio of the play Marvin's Room.) Though the heroine of One True Thing, Ellen Gulden, is a golden girl with two brothers who'll lose her career the instant she steps off the fast track, society concurs with her dad, who says, "It seems to me another woman is what's wanted here."

The book is a mother-daughter tale that should please fans of, say, The Joy Luck Club. It's not flashy, but it has a deep feel for the way children often discover, just before it's too late, who their parents really are. "Our parents are never people to us," Ellen writes, "they're always character traits.... There is only room in the lifeboat of your life for one, and you always choose yourself, and turn your parents into whatever it takes to keep you afloat." The mercy-killing subplot isn't gripping, but the palpable sense of deepening family intimacy certainly is. --Tim Appelo

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:44 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

A New York psychiatrist recounts her mother's death for which she was arrested. At the time, Dr. Ellen Gulden was accused of killing her mother with an overdose of morphine, a charge in part based on a high school essay in which she advocated euthanasia.… (more)

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