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One True Thing by Anna Quindlen
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One True Thing (1994)

by Anna Quindlen

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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.
( )
  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 |
One True Thing by Anna Quindlen; (4*)

One True Thing is the perfect book for a quiet winter day, a cozy chair and a cup of hot chocolate or tea. Quindlen's writing is both lyrical and stark, showing her keen observations about how we relate with and by those we love.

Ellen, who lives and works in New York has basically been summoned home by her father to care for her mother who is dying of cancer. Her father and her two brothers are to carry on with their lives at school and at work. Ellen is angered by this. She does not want to give up her life, work and apartment in the city. But she does what is expected of her, moves home and helps her mother and father.

At first her mother is still able to get around but needs to be driven to her chemo treatments and needs help with the housework. She can enjoy her life and she is happy spending these days with her daughter and the two of them getting to know one another better. She decides she wants to do a book group with her daughter. They go the the bookstore and choose three novels to read and discuss. They get two copies each of: Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations. They make it through P and P and most of the way through Anna Karenina before her mother gets to ill to continue.

Ellen's mother is beginning to have a lot of pain by now, especially in her back. Her oncologist is very hands on with her treatment and even comes to the house when Ellen calls for help. She is now receiving morphine in tablet/capsule form and through a port in her chest through which she can dose herself just by pressing a little button. This manages her pain much better for a time.

Ellen spends tender moments with her mother throughout this time. Her brothers come home and realize their mother will never be well again and they return to the city and to school in great emotional pain, grieving already. Their father spends the nights with his wife and Ellen often sees them together with her father pulling a chair up to the hospital bed and hears them murmuring quietly with each other.

When her mother dies, for some unspecified reason, they do an autopsy. (This did not ring true to me. I have never known of an autopsy being done on someone who has died of cancer.) At any rate after the funeral the doctor speaks of this to Ellen and lets her know that lethal amounts of morphine were found in her mother's body and that she is a suspect.

What follows is the meat of the story, other than the relationships within the family.

I recommend One True Thing for Anna Quindlen's beautiful writing style and for the way she confronts her reader's worst fears. The judicial aspects of the book's ending were distracting and more unlikely than not. But I found this to be a good read. ( )
2 vote rainpebble | Jul 28, 2014 |
One True Thing could have easily been maudlin and sentimental, but it wasn't. The story of Ellen Gulden finding herself through the crucible of caring for her mother with terminal cancer, dealing with the emotionally unavailable father she once adored, and being accused of giving her mother a killing dose of morphine was emotional, yet tenderly written. For me the books' main theme was about thinking one knows one true thing and then finding out that thing isn't true at all. Very thought provoking. ( )
  AuntieClio | Nov 22, 2013 |
This is the best, the most carefully written, of all Quindlen's books I've read so far. ( )
  TheJeanette | Oct 18, 2013 |
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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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