One True Thing

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Overview

One True Thing is a breathtaking, brilliantly realized novel, and it moves Anna Quindlen to the forefront of fiction writers in America. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, Quindlen is widely admired for her extraordinary intelligence, humor, and insight, and for the depth of her perceptions about the public and private lives of ordinary people. All these distinctive and original gifts, plus the magic only a superb writer of fiction can create, are evident in this ...
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One True Thing: A Novel

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Overview

One True Thing is a breathtaking, brilliantly realized novel, and it moves Anna Quindlen to the forefront of fiction writers in America. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, Quindlen is widely admired for her extraordinary intelligence, humor, and insight, and for the depth of her perceptions about the public and private lives of ordinary people. All these distinctive and original gifts, plus the magic only a superb writer of fiction can create, are evident in this astonishing book.

A young woman is in jail, accused of the mercy killing of her mother. She says she didn't do it; she thinks she knows who did. When Ellen Gulden first learns that her mother, Kate, has cancer, the disease is already far advanced. Her father insists that Ellen quit her job and come home to take care of Kate. Ellen has always been the special child in the family, the high achiever, her father's intellectual match, and the person caught in the middle between her parents. She has seen herself as very different from her mother, the talented homemaker, the family's popular center, its one true thing. Yet as Ellen begins to spend her days with Kate, she learns many surprising things, not only about herself but also about her mother, a woman she thought she knew so well. The life choices Ellen and her mother have made are reassessed in this deeply moving novel, a work of fiction that is richly imbued with profound insights into the complex lives of women and men.

Anna Quindlen writes masterfully, and with great sophistication and grace, about love and death, sexuality and betrayal, the triangles within a family, identity, growth, and change. She writes about the mysteries at the heart of theperson we think we are, of who and what we know. And she explores the ambiguities that make up marriage, character, family, and fate. As Kate Gulden's pain increases, so do the dosages of morphine. And so does Ellen's belief that her mother's suffering is unendurable. One True Thing is remarkable.

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Editorial Reviews

Donna Seaman
Considering her Pulitzer Prize-winning op-ed columns for the New York Times collected in the invigorating Thinking Out Loud , it's no surprise that Quindlen's fiction has a strong moral component. The question posed in this tilt-a-world tale of self-sacrifice, grief, suspense, and revelation is whether or not a person has the right to die. And, further, how on earth can a person convince themselves to end the life of a loved one, no matter how awful their suffering?

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.

It isn't easy reading about how cancer ravages Ellen's once radiant and ever-nurturing mother, but it is eminently satisfying to witness Ellen's transformation from an often glib, emotionally suppressed overachiever into a woman who begins to fathom the meaning of love. Quindlen also gets in some good jabs at the media for its feverish appetite for easy scandal and its irrelevance to the truth manifest in genuine tragedies. -- Booklist

From the Publisher
"Fiercely compassionate and frank...conveys a world so out of kilter and so like ours that its readers are likely to feel both exhilarated and unnerved by its accuracy."
—Elle

"A masterpiece."
—Tulsa World

"Provocative...We leave One True Thing stimulated and challenged, more thoughtful than when we began."
—Los Angeles Times

"It is simply impossible to forget."
—Alice Hoffman

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780440221036
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/28/1995
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 387
  • Product dimensions: 4.18 (w) x 6.91 (h) x 1.13 (d)

Meet the Author

Anna Quindlen

ANNA QUINDLEN  is the author of five novels (Blessings, Object Lessons, One True Thing, Black and Blue, Rise and Shine), and six nonfiction books (Being Perfect, Loud & Clear, A Short Guide to a Happy Life, Living Out Loud, Thinking Out Loud, How Reading Changed My Life). She has also written two children's books (The Tree That Came to Stay, Happily Ever After). Her New York Times column "Public and Private" won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Her column now appears every other week in Newsweek.

Biography

Anna Quindlen could have settled onto a nice, lofty career plateau in the early 1990s, when she had won a Pulitzer Prize for her New York Times column; but she took an unconventional turn, and achieved a richer result.

Quindlen, the third woman to hold a place among the Times' Op-Ed columnists, had already published two successful collections of her work when she decided to leave the paper in 1995. But it was the two novels she had produced that led her to seek a future beyond her column.

Quindlen had a warm, if not entirely uncritical, reception as a novelist. Her first book, Object Lessons, focused on an Irish American family in suburban New York in the 1960s. It was a bestseller and a Times Notable Book of 1991, but was also criticized for not being as engaging as it could have been. One True Thing, Quindlen's exploration of an ambitious daughter's journey home to take care of her terminally ill mother, was stronger still—a heartbreaker that was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep. But Quindlen's fiction clearly benefited from her decision to leave the Times. Three years after that controversial departure, she earned her best reviews yet with Black and Blue, a chronicle of escape from domestic abuse.

Quindlen's novels are thoughtful explorations centering on women who may not start out strong, but who ultimately find some core within themselves as a result of what happens in the story. Her nonfiction meditations—particularly A Short Guide to a Happy Life and her collection of "Life in the 30s" columns, Living Out Loud—often encourage this same transition, urging others to look within themselves and not get caught up in what society would plan for them. It's an approach Quindlen herself has obviously had success with.

Good To Know

To those who expressed surprise at Quindlen's apparent switch from columnist to novelist, the author points out that her first love was always fiction. She told fans in a Barnes & Noble.com chat, "I really only went into the newspaper business to support my fiction habit, but then discovered, first of all, that I loved reporting for its own sake and, second, that journalism would be invaluable experience for writing novels."

Quindlen joined Newsweek as a columnist in 1999. She began her career at the New York Post in 1974, jumping to the New York Times in 1977.

Quindlen's prowess as a columnist and prescriber of advice has made her a popular pick for commencement addresses, a sideline that ultimately inspired her 2000 title A Short Guide to a Happy Life. Quindlen's message tends to be a combination of stopping to smell the flowers and being true to yourself. Quindlen told students at Mount Holyoke in 1999, "Begin to say no to the Greek chorus that thinks it knows the parameters of a happy life when all it knows is the homogenization of human experience. Listen to that small voice from inside you, that tells you to go another way. George Eliot wrote, 'It is never too late to be what you might have been.' It is never too early, either. And it will make all the difference in the world."

Studying fiction at Barnard with the literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick, Quindlen's senior thesis was a collection of stories, one of which she sold to Seventeen magazine.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 8, 1952
    2. Place of Birth:
      Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
    1. Education:
      B.A., Barnard College, 1974
    2. Website:

Reading Group Guide

A mother.  A daughter.  A shattering choice.

From Anna Quindlen, bestselling author of Black and Blue, comes a novel of life, love and everyday acts of mercy.

"A triumph."
--San Francisco Chronicle


From the Paperback edition.|

1. One True Thing begins with Ellen in jail. What do you think about the book beginning this way? Did it affect the way you read the rest of the story, knowing (to some extent) how it would end? Looking back, do you think that scene in jail ultimately adds or detracts from the mystery of the story? How?

2. What was your first impression of Ellen? What did you think of her when you finished the novel? It’s clear that she changes over the course of her mother’s illness and in the wake of her death, but in what specific ways?

3. Kate Gulden seems to be the archetypal “perfect mother.” Was she? How were her relationships with her sons, Jeff and Brian, different from her relationship with Ellen?

4. What did you think of George Gulden at the beginning of the book? Were you surprised as you learned more about his relationship with his wife and children? How did your opinion of him change, and why?

5. Ellen reflects, “No one knows what goes on inside a marriage. I read that once; the aphorism ended ‘except for the two people who are in it.’ But I suspect that even that is not the truth, that even two people married to each other for many many years may have only passing similarities in their perceptions and their expectations” (p. 106). What do you think of this statement? How does it apply to George and Kate Gulden?

6. Describe Ellen’s relationship with Jonathan. Why does she remain interested in a man who does not treat her well? How does Ellen’s relationship with Jonathan compare and contrast to her relationship with her father? Were you surprised by Jonathan’s betrayal? Why do you think he turned on Ellen?

7. In reference to her father, Ellen says: “He divided women into groups . . . the intellectual twins, the woman of the mind and the one of the heart . . . I had the misfortune to be designated the heartless one, my mother the mindless one. It was a disservice to us both but, on balance, I think she got the better deal” (p. 281). Discuss the meanings, and implications, of these categorizations.

8. Discuss the reactions to Kate’s cancer diagnosis, and the progression of the disease, both within the Gulden family (Kate, Ellen, George, Brian and Jeff) and in their small town (the Minnies, etc). Were you surprised by any of the reactions? How and why?

9. Against Ellen’s wishes, Dr. Cohn sends Nurse Teresa Guerrero to help care for Kate. How does Teresa fit in with the Gulden family? Do you agree with Ellen, when she thinks that Teresa helped her as much, if not more, than she helped Kate? How?

10. When Kate died, what did you think happened? Were you surprised to learn about the morphine overdose? Before you learned the truth, did you think it was Ellen, George, or Kate who had administered the lethal dose? Did you ever think it could have been an accident?

11. Mrs. Forburg, Ellen’s former English teacher, bails Ellen out of jail and lets her stay at her home during the indictment media frenzy. Why does Mrs. Forburg take such a risk?

12. Were you surprised by the grand jury’s decision? If you thought Ellen would or would not be indicted, explain why. Do you think the jury’s decision was realistic?

13. At the end of the novel, Ellen sees her father for the first time in eight years. About the death of her mother, she says, “Someday I will tell my father. Someday soon, I imagine, although there is great temptation to leave the man I once thought the smartest person on earth in utter ignorance” (p. 287). Do you think Ellen will tell her father what happened? Why or why not? Would you, if you were in her shoes?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 26 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 26 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2000

    a reviewer

    After reading Black and Blue by the same author and thoroughly enjoying it, I decided to give One True Thing a try. From the first page, I was drawn into Ellen's story. Like Ellen, I love my mother but often have a difficult time understanding her, and I am not very close to her. Reading this book helped me to appreciate my mother even more. I am not a very emotional person, and I am not a big crier, but after finishing One True Thing I used up almost a whole box of tissues. For anyone that is browsing the shelves and looking for a good book to read, One True Thing is a perfect choice. I have read a lot of books, and this is one of the best books that I've ever read. Anna Quindlen has an amazing ability to write a story that is interesting, characters that you can relate to, and themes and morals that really make you think.

    16 out of 18 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2011

    Stop writing overview instead of just a review!

    Im tired of people writing what the book is about! Just tell us if its a good or bad read!

    14 out of 32 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 7, 2004

    Nikki

    One True Thing While reading Anna Quindlen¿s novel One True Thing I quickly recognized a good book. Ellen, the main character, grew up in a small town on the east coast. Here everyone lives in colonials and capes with little gardens in the front. The perfect little neighborhood. Everyone knows each other and there business, especially when things are wrong. That is why it was no surprise to me when Ellen decided to move to New York City to pursue her talent as a journalist in one of the popular magazines. There was nothing holding her back to the town. No great opportunity, no friends, not even her family whom she had never had a strong relationship with anyway. Ellen never really had that mother-daughter relationship that you read about in books and see in the movies. I think the character that Quindlen created as Ellen is a lot like a lot of girls which is much of the reason why it is easy to relate and exciting to read. What gives the novel a twist is when Kate, Ellen¿s mother, is diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her father makes Ellen feel extremely guilty until she feels obligated to move back home and care for her dying mother. The true tragedy of the disease makes you feel not only for Kate but for Ellen as well who is losing someone she didn¿t really know. The theme that is apparent throughout the novel is, knowing yourself. Ellen had yet to realize who she was and what she was meant to do in the world. Kate on the other hand had her whole life to look back on to determine if she did indeed make the right choices. Ellen had always viewed her mother whom she had been around since the day she was born as a puppet. She cared for the children and cooked for her husband. Her husband cheated on her but everyday when he came home dinner would be there and the children were bathed and ready for bed. But it was only in the last few months of Kate¿s life that Ellen really understood the depth behind her mother. This novel really explores the depth of mother-daughter relationships and makes you think about your own connection with your mother. The things that Ellen finds out about her mother in those last few months is astounding and makes you question how much you really know about your own mother. I would recommend this book to everyone who doesn¿t mind a tear-jerker and who likes real life stories; this is sure to be a true classic.

    9 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 28, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    FABULOUS READ!

    Ellen returns home to take care of her mother, who is dying from cancer, where the experience uncovers many secrets. This one is powerful with tremendous insight into the heart of relationships. Fabulous read!

    8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2000

    'Love What You Have'

    One True Thing is one of those books that, once started, cannot be left alone. I began reading it shortly after my mother finally succumbed to a long illness. I needed desperately to talk to someone who understood how I felt--and I found her within the pages of this book. A must-read for anyone who has ever experienced the grief of losing a parent.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2005

    One of the greatest books of all time

    This is the first book I have read of Anna Quindlen, whoever doesn't read this book is really missing out on some excitement, this book has suspense, drama, excitement, everything that makes a great book great.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 15, 2001

    The Emotional Journey of a Mother and her Daughter

    For mothers and daughters everywhere, Anna Quindlen¿s One True Thing is an easy book to fall in love with. This novel describes and depicts the lives of two individuals in their struggle and journey of harmonious growth. The journey of Ellen and her mother is one that most of us know, or will come to know. Through tears and laughter, Quindlen touches us all through the novel¿s central theme ?what it means to have and be a mother. The relationship between a mother and her daughter is much like the connection between vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup; in many ways the two are different and do not need one another, but all the same, they complement each other to form a wonderful bond. In Anna Quindlen¿s One True Thing, the mother-daughter relationship is examined extensively. Quindlen focuses on issues such as the interdependency and role reversal that take place between a mother and her daughter during complicated life experiences. Empathy, sympathy, and the formation of a bond are all aspects of a mother-daughter relationship that come into effect when times are unfortunate. As complex as mother-daughter relationships tend to be, there is always a little indication of love and family ties and responsibility that hold the two together. Personality conflicts between mother and daughter can result in a loose, underdeveloped relationship. In One True Thing, Quindlen emphasizes the difference in Ellen and Kate's personalities through the use of flashback and simple examples of the two handling comparable situations in differently. The mother-daughter relationship portrayal in Hope Floats exemplifies a similar situation in which Birdee and her mother have extreme personality differences. Both pieces of work take place during life-altering struggles, and it is during these unfortunate times that discrepancies must be worked out, as mother and daughter must adjust to their newly conditioned lifestyles. In times of difficult, life-altering circumstances, it is possible for an interdependency to develop between a mother and her daughter. For example, in Hope Floats, Birdee has been humiliated by her husband, which results in a divorce, forcing her to return to live at her mother's house. Birdee and her mother are particularly dependent on one another; however, it is for diverse reasons that each individual's dependency subsists. Birdee needs her mother for the essentials in life, such as food and shelter, but more importantly, she needs her mother's support and sympathy. Her mother, on the other hand, simply needs someone whom she can take care, other than herself (Hope Floats). Similar to the situation in Hope Floats, Ellen and Kate of One True Thing are dependent of one another; Kate needs her daughter to take care of her as she struggles with her terminal illness, while Ellen consciously and instinctively needs the existence of a mother in her life. A significant aspect of the relationship between a mother and her daughter is the issue of bonding. Some mother-daughter bonds are established at birth and strengthened through time. Quindlen, however, focuses on the lack of closeness between mother and daughter, and the bonding that occurs as a result of forced time spent together. Bonding is indicative of many feelings, such as compassion, empathy, and the existence of both contentment and despair. In One True Thing, Ellen is forced to become her mother's caretaker. Although this causes conflicts with her personal desires, Ellen reluctantly remains faithful to her mother, and in due time, a closeness develops between the two. The initial occurrence of bonding between Ellen and Kate takes place when Ellen takes time to listen to her mother's stories. Shortly after, they watch movies together, which produces mutual tears, and in heart brings them closer together. Sympathy, an important factor in the process of bonding during difficult circumstances, strengthens mother-daughter relationships. Ellen b

    3 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 11, 2000

    Learn to appreciate love

    I actually read this book after I had seen the movie. I think we as humans think we have all the time in the world, but the sad truth is that we don't, and we really don't appreciate the depth of a mother's love until it is too late. This book brings that to the table very openly and honestly. It forces you to think, and re-evaluate your relationship with your mother, even others you share your life with.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 19, 2007

    Good book.....

    This book was good, it touched me in many ways but it was not her best. Blessings was better.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2007

    A reviewer

    This is the first book I read about Anna Quindlen. It is very different from other books I read in the past. Ellen followed her dream of becoming a journalist in one of the most popular magazines.She had a boyfriend and a best friend. It seem she had every thing she ever dream of. What gives the novel a twist is when Kate Ellen's mother is diagnosed with cancer. Ellen leaves her great job and everything she had to take care of her sick mother. Ellen viewed her mother as the one who did everything for them. She really didnt know her mother very well and she thought she was more like her dad. This novel talks about a mother and daughter relationship and makes you think of what type of relationship you have with your mom. It makes you appreciate her more while she is still alive. I recommend this book to people that enjoy real life stories and classics. At the end you need to find out who was responsible of Kates dead if it was Ellen, dad or Kate. it seem like a real mistery.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2001

    to hard to handle

    The book ONE TRUE THING, by Anna Quidlen.The stary wsa about a woman how left every thing to go home to take care of he mother and then got blamed for her mothers death. Was harible it was hard for me to keep reading it.The story line was not that bad but I still did not like it. This book is for older people.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2007

    'True, But Reductive'

    Anna Quindlen put it best herself: 'true, but reductive.' This novel is brilliant, but I cannot recommend it. Absent of joy, it shows only the dark side of the human heart. The protagonist, Ellen Gulden, agrees to care for her cancer-stricken mother simply to spite her father, and her spite only grows with time. It's an unrelentingly angry novel, and if the protagonist were angry at the cancer, I could sympathize with her. But Ellen's need to blame people for their fallibility makes her unlikable and the entire novel unenjoyable. Though expertly rendered, the main characters aren't engaging, and it's no fun spending time in their company. I didn't expect this novel to be a light read, but I hoped it would be uplifting. It wasn't.

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted August 11, 2010

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