Book Review: One True Thing by Anna Quindlen

One True Thing
One True Thing by Anna Quindlen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Last year I was introduced to Anna Quindlen through her book Every Last One, which was a stunning depiction of a normal, average family torn apart by a tragedy. The book affected me deeply in many ways and while I was keen to read more I felt I needed to give myself time to savour her writing rather than devouring it all at once.
And so finally I started on my second Quindlen novel, One True Thing, and it was again a moving experience – though one that wasn’t quite as satisfying overall.

One True Thing focuses on Ellen, a high achieving young woman working as a journalist in New York. Ellen’s father is an academic and Ellen has always allied with him rather than her mother, who she feels somewhat apathetic towards. She’s never understood how her mother could settle for a life of domesticity when there was so much more to be explored. When her mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer Ellen rather reluctantly puts her career on hold to come home and care for her, at her father’s request. The next few months are spent talking, reading and cooking – mother and daughter form their own book group and share recipes and gradually discover they actually have a powerful bond. Ellen finds there is a lot more to her mother than she thought and realises that she made the ultimate sacrifice – her own dreams and ambitions – to raise a family and be a good wife.

Eventually cancer wins out and the family begin to deal with their grief. Ellen is set to return to her life in New York when she is arrested, accused of hastening her mother’s death with an overdose of morphine, and charged with murder. The second half of the book looks at how the family is affected by this and the eventual outcome … which I won’t give away here.

I found the first half of the book fascinating. At first Ellen is depicted as tough and hot-headed, her mother more docile, but as their relationship grows and deepens the similarities between the women are obvious. I loved hearing about the books they were reading and the food they were cooking, and seeing this beautiful loving relationship develop often brought tears to my eyes.

However, the second half of the book didnt enthrall me as much. I think the mother-daughter relationship is what’s at the core of One True Thing and once that has gone the book felt hollow and unfeeling. I found Ellen’s loyalty difficult to understand under the circumstances and didnt feel strongly enough about this rest of the characters – her father, brothers, boyfriend – to care much about them. The final denouement was shocking and unexpected and finished the book in the right way, but I was left wanting more of Ellen and her mother and less of the legal aspects.

Having said that, I did thoroughly enjoy this book, which made me think quite deeply about my own relationship with my mother (and my grandmother, with whom I would love to have had more time) and also how I interact with my own daughter. Highly recommended.

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