Ellen Gulden is enjoying her career as a successful magazine writer in New York City when she learns that her mother, Kate, is dying of cancer. Ellen’s father insists that she quit her job and return home to become a caregiver. A high-powered career woman, Ellen has never felt she had much in common with her mother, a homemaker and the heart of their family. Yet as Ellen begins to spend time with Kate, she discovers many surprising truths, not only about herself, but also about the woman she thought she knew so well.
Later, when Ellen is accused of the mercy killing of her mother, she must not only defend her own life but make a difficult choice—either accept responsibility for an act she did not commit or divulge the name of the person she believes committed a painful act of love.
Praise for One True Thing
“A triumph.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“We leave One True Thing stimulated and challenged, more thoughtful than when we began.”—Los Angeles Times
“Like a brush with mortality, One True Thing leaves the reader feeling grateful, wide awake, lucky to be alive.”—Michael Chabon
“It calls you back for another read. . . . This is a book of catharsis.”—The Denver Post
“Fiercely compassionate and frank.” —Elle
About the Author
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:July 8, 1952
Place of Birth:Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Education:B.A., Barnard College, 1974
Read an Excerpt
I remember that the last completely normal day we ever had in our lives, my brothers and I, was an ordinary day much like this one, a muggy August-into-September weekday, the sky low and gray over Langhorne, clouds as flat as an old comforter hanging between the two slight ridges that edged the town. We’d gone to the Tastee Freeze for soft ice cream that day, driving in Jeff’s battered open jeep with our arms out the windows. My brothers were handsome boys who have turned into handsome men. Brian has our father’s black hair and blue eyes, Jeffrey our mother’s coloring, auburn hair and eyes like amber and a long face with freckles.
Both of them were tanned that day, at the end of their summer jobs as camp counselor and landscapes I was pale from a summer spent in a New York office on weekdays and house-guesting at Fire Island weekends, spending more time at cocktail parties than on the beach, where melanoma and Retin-A were frequent talking points among my acquaintances.
Afterward I wondered why I hadn’t loved that day more, why I hadn’t savored every bit of it like soft ice cream on my tongue, why I hadn’t known how good it was to live so normally, so everyday. But you only know that, I suppose, after it’s not normal and everyday any longer. And nothing ever was, after that day. It was a Thursday, and I was still my old self, smug, self-involved, successful, and what in my circles passed for happy.
“Ellen’s got the life,” said Jeff, who’d been asking about the magazine where I worked. “She gets paid to be a wiseass for a living. You go to parties, you talk to people, you make fun of them in print. It’s like getting paid to breathe. Or play tennis.”
“You could get paid to play tennis,” I said. “It’s called being a tennis pro.”
“Oh, right,” said Jeff, “with our father?” He sucked the ice cream from the bottom of his cone. “Excuse me, Pop? Mr. Life of the Mind? I’ve decided to move to Hilton Head and become a tennis pro. But I’ll be reading Flaubert in my spare time.”
“Is it possible for one of you to make a life decision without wondering what Papa will find wrong with it?” I said.
My brothers hooted and jeered. “Oh, great,” said Jeff. “Ellen Gulden renounces paternal approval! And only twenty-four years too late.”
“Mom is happy with anything I do,” said Brian.
“Oh, well, Mom,” said Jeff.
“Jeffrey man,” someone called across the parking lot. “Brian!” My brothers lifted their hands in desultory salutes. “What’s up?” Jeff called back.
“I’m history here,” I said.
“You were history here when you were here,” said Jeff. “No offense, El. You’re a hungry puppy, always were a hungry puppy, and the world don’t like you hungry puppies. People are afraid you’re going to bite them.”
“Why are you talking like a cracker radio commentator?” I said.
“See, Bri, Ellen never relaxes. New York is her kind of place. An entire city of people who never relax, who were antsy in their own hometowns. So long, hungry puppy. Go where the dogs eat the dogs.”
The light was dull yellow because of the low clouds, like a solitary bulb in a dark room. The asphalt was soft in the driveway under our feet, the smell of charcoal drifting over Langhorne the way perfume hung over a cocktail party in the city. Our father came in late in the evening, but we were used to that: he stood in the den for a time, leaning against the doorjamb, and then he trudged upstairs, oddly silent.
Not odd for the boys, with whom he had the strained, slightly mechanical transactions that many fathers have with their sons. But odd for me. I had always felt I knew my father’s mind, if not his heart. Whenever I came home, from college and then later, on visits from the city, he would call me into his study, with its dark furniture and dim sepia light, would lean forward in his desk chair and say, simply, “Tell.”
And I would spin my stories for him, of the famous writer I had heard read in a lecture hall, of the arguments about syntax I had had with editors, of the downstairs neighbor who played Scarlatti exquisitely but monotonously on the small antique harpsichord I had once glimpsed through the door of his apartment.
I often felt like someone being debriefed by a government apparatchik, or like Scheherazade entertaining the sultan. And often I made stories up, wonderful stories, so that my father would lean back in his chair and his face would relax into the utter concentration he had when he lectured to his students. Sometimes at the end he would say “Interesting.” And I would be happy.
Our mother was in the hospital that day, and as it always did, the house seemed like a stage set without her. It was her house, really. Whenever anyone is called a homemaker now—and they rarely are—I think of my mother. She made a home painstakingly and well. She made balanced meals, took cooking classes, cleaned the rooms of our home with a scarf tying back her bright hair, just like in the movies. When she wallpapered a room, she would always cover the picture frames in the same paper, and place them on the bureau or the bedside table, with family photographs inside.
The two largest pictures in the living room were of my mother and father. In one they are standing together on our front porch. My mother is holding my father’s arm with both her own, an incandescent smile lighting her face, as though life knows no greater happiness than this—this place, this day, this man. Her body is turned slightly sideways, toward him, but he is facing foursquare to the camera, his arms crossed over his chest, his face serious, his eyes mocking.
Back when we were still lovers, Jonathan had picked up that picture from the piano and said that; in it my father looked like the kind of man who would rip out your heart, grill it, and eat it for dinner, then have your wife for dessert. Allowing for the difficult relationship between Jonathan and my father, the relationship of two men engaged in a struggle for the soul of the same woman, it was a pretty fair description.
I wonder if my father still has that picture there, on the piano, or whether it’s put away now, my mother smiling dustily, happily, into the dark of a drawer.
Next to it was another picture of my mother hanging on to my father’s arm. Wearing a cap and gown, I am hanging on to his other one. In that picture, my father is squinting slightly in the sunlight, and smiling. Jonathan took that picture. I have it on my dresser today, the most tangible remaining evidence of the Gulden family triangle.
My mother would be saddened by my apartment now, by the grimy white cotton couch and the inexpertly placed standing lamps. My apartment is the home of someone who is not a homemaker, someone who listens to the messages on the answering machine and then runs out again.
But she would not criticize me, as other mothers might. Instead she would buy me things, a cheap but pretty print she would mat herself, a throw of some kind. And as she arranged the throw or hung the picture she would say, smiling, “We’re so different, aren’t we, Ellie?” But she would never realize, as she said it, as she’d said it so many times before, that if you are different from a person everyone agrees is wonderful, it means you are somehow wrong.
My mother loved the hardware store, Phelps’s Hardware, and the salesmen there loved her. My father would always tease her: “Once again, she has paid the Phelps’s mortgage for the month and alone of all her sex has cornered the market on tung oil and steel wool!” My father always teased her. I was the one he talked to.
It was a charmed day in the charmed life we lived, my brothers and I, that day we went to the Tastee Freeze. I see that so clearly now. We lolled on the grass in the backyard afterward, cooked and ate some hamburgers, watched television. And then the next morning our father came downstairs, his khakis wrinkled, his blue shirt rolled back from his wrists, and told us all to sit down. He leaned back against the kitchen counter as I sat opposite him, sipping a glass of orange juice. My two brothers sat in the ladderback chairs at either end of the kitchen table. My mother had caned the seats. I don’t include those details by way of description, but in tribute. Things like this were my mother’s whole life. Of this I was vaguely contemptuous at the time.
When I was a little girl, she would sometimes sing me to sleep, although I always preferred my father, because he made up nonsense songs: “Lullaby, and good night, fettuccine Alfredo. Lullaby and good night, rigatoni Bolognese.” But my mother sang a boring little tune that was nothing but the words “safe and sound” over and over again. It put me right to sleep. My father always jazzed me up; my mother always calmed me down. They did the same to one another. Sometimes I think they just practiced on me.
Reading Group Guide
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?