Book Corner

Book Review: One True Thing

One True Thing
Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (August 8, 2006)
ISBN -10: 9780812976182
320 pages
Author Website

My Grade: B-

Plot / Premise:

I’ve decided to copy and paste the plot summary from the below source. I always feel like I don’t do plot summaries justice and I’m only regurgitating what other people have said and … okay, fine. I’m lazy. I’d rather concentrate on character development and writing style.

From Barnes and Noble:

The novel begins with a deceptively hubristic prologue in which our narrator, 24-year-old Ellen Gulden, describes what it’s like to be in jail charged with killing her dying mother. Then we get the real story, every painful, ironic bit of it. Fresh out of Harvard and eager to prove herself as a journalist, Ellen is completely unprepared for her rather elusive and dismissive father’s request that she move back home and nurse her mother, who, at age 46, has suddenly become terribly ill. Ellen has always been a daddy’s girl, dismissing her homespun mother as an anachronism. Now, as she enters her mother’s world just as her mother is about to exit it, everything she’s ever assumed about her family and, indeed, life itself is challenged.

Overall Thoughts:

Dense. Beautiful prose. That’s how I would sum this book up front. This is an author that likes to take you on her character’s journey through the senses. I admire this type of writing because writing this way is HARD. It requires the writer to draw on his/her sensory experiences and I just haven’t paid that much attention to how things sound/smell/taste/feel in my lifetime so that I can regurgitate those sensory details in my own writing. When I’ve been forced to do so (creative writing classes in college), it was like pulling teeth and I remember spending HOURS, sitting at the dining room table, hunched over my laptop and agonizing over first what to write and then how to write it.

Put simply, it was hell for me.

So I can fully appreciate this kind of writing.

With that said, it’s not an easy read. Again, it’s dense. Which means the plot sort of stalls so the reader can get inside Ellen’s head and FEEL what she’s feeling before the story can move forward. This kind of writing doesn’t appeal to everyone and I confess, I have to be in the mood to read it. In fact, it took me six weeks to read the darn thing. (But to be fair, I wasn’t really trying to read it it, either. Life got in the way).

The subject matter is sensitive. It’s about a woman who, in essence, is guilted into coming home to take care of her dying mother. It’s also about her complicated relationship with her parents. I could relate to a lot of this character’s issues. And though I wouldn’t be resentful of having to put my career on hold to help my mother, I can imagine it would be hard to juggle all of those complicated feelings.

Ellen’s character was a bit too hard for me. She came off as brassy and a bit bitchy, if you want the truth. Even when she was accused of assisted suicide, she didn’t quite take it seriously. It was almost as if she wasn’t a participant in her own life. I tend to create the same kind of characters, so this was a good lesson for me to be careful when I write “tough” characters – I don’t want them to come off as brassy and bitchy.

Responding to Negative Reviews:

The follow-up of the book as expressed in Part Two was only the rambling self-importance of a narcissistic feminist campaigning strongly in favor of today’s evils-as-rights. Katherine Gulden, for all Ellen’s (or Anna’s) wishing it, would not have been the woman that Ellen (Anna) described, either in her relationship to Brian, or to her husband, or to Ellen, or to herself. Ellen (or Anna), in spite of her self-righteous avowals would not have protected her father. At least not in the father-daughter combination she had portrayed in the rest of the book.

The book, in short, did not ring true.

I disagree. I think this book was a pretty accurate portrayal of a self-centered woman who is desperate to retain her individuality while at the same time try and please her parents. I think that’s a pretty common desire – to want to please one’s parents. And I totally bought the whole father asking her to come home and take care of her mother bit because Ellen is desperate to make her father proud of her. She’s never felt smart enough to compete with her father so she uses this opportunity to show him that she’s a strong, intelligent and capable woman. Though she does resent him for asking. And while we’re talking about the father – UGH. Talk about an arrogant, clueless, poor excuse for a man.

The feminist comment is interesting. I never really tagged Ellen as a feminist but now that I think about it, I think this reviewer might be right. She had a very self-important attitude about her accomplishments and intelligence and though this might be an unfair assessment, I sort of categorize feminists into an arrogant and self-important box. Perhaps that’s why I disliked Ellen’s character so much, because of these “feminists” traits.

Ms. Quindlen doesn’t attempt to write about things she doesn’t understand, but she understands so little of the mother/daughter relationship that the book is rather empty. The mother, Kate, is so wonderful, so nurturing, so accepting. She spent her life creating a beautiful home and loving her family. She bears her illness with grace and courage. The daughter, Ellen, has only to watch, learn, and forgive. With Kate for a teacher, she could hardly do otherwise.

Ellen is not jealous or resentful of her mother. She is merely dismissive of the way her mother chose to live. As the novel progresses, Ellen realizes that there’s a lot more to her mom and less to her dad than she had previously thought. Welcome to adulthood, Ellen.

‘One True Thing’ wraps an inherently messy experience up in a very neat package. The novel rings true only to those of us fortunate enough to have wonderful mothers, only to those of us whose lives have never been touched by terminal illness. At its core, it is Anna Quindlen’s elegy for her mother and her childhood: touching and personal, deeply felt, but without the resonance that would have come had she explored the less attractive aspects of the relationship at its core

I completely agree with the second and third paragraph, but I have to disagree with the first paragraph. I thought Quindlen did a great job portraying Ellen’s dismissive attitude toward her mother. She took her mother for granted and it was only after she had passed away did she really learn to appreciate her for who she was, not for what she did. Just because someone has a wonderful and nurturing nature doesn’t mean that they are appreciated, especially by their children.

Ellen is immature and selfish and learns, by taking care of her mother, by being FORCED to be compassionate and understanding to someone else’s plight, that people shouldn’t be put into nice, neat categories. Though it was sad that it took her mother dying for her to get to know her, the fact is that she had the opportunity, and the experience taught her about reality and forced her to grow up and accept people for who they are, not for who one wants them to be.


By the way, I have this book for sale in my book store if you would like to purchase it and check it out for yourself.