What I am Reading – One True Thing

I realized that, while I would never be my mother nor have her life, the lesson she had left me was that it was possible to love and care for a man and still have at your core a strength so great that you never even needed to put it on display.” – Anna Quindlen

Still obsessed with Anna Quindlen, I went back and reread my favorite of her books, One True Thing. This is the story of a daughter who discovers who her mother really is when it’s almost too late. This Sunday is Mother’s Day. I thought I would suggest you read it or, if you already have, read it again. First, buy a box of tissue. You’re going to need them.

Daughters fall into two categories: those who want to be like their mothers and those who don’t. Brilliant, driven, self-admittedly cold, Ellen Gulden definitely does not. It is her father who she idolizes and wants to be like. And, it is his approval she craves. This need succeeds in dragging her from her exciting job as a journalist in New York  City back to Langhorne, the college town where she was raised, to care for her dying mother. Not a role she wants, she does it for “Papa”, not her mother.

Reluctantly, with a bitterness that makes the reader wince, she steps into her mother’s shoes and attempts to run George Gulden’s house so that his world is disturbed as little as possible by the messiness of his wife’s dying. It’s all about George. Thoroughly unlikeable, it is only when Quindlen makes it possible to see him through the  loving eyes of his wife that the reader is able to view him in a kinder light.

While the men, George, Ellen’s boyfriend Jonathan, and Ellen’s brothers, Jeff and Brian, play a role in this book, it is a mother-daughter story. Ellen learns the the cliche is true. You can’t  tell a book by its cover. Sweet Kate Gulden, baker of pies, refinisher of furniture, reader of garish romance novels is not who Ellen dismissively thought she was. It is this discovery, played out against the relentless timetable of Kate’s dying, that will keep you reading until you’ve turned the last page. You may wonder if Kate and Ellen are really so different, after all.

One True Thing was published in 1994, before cell phones, laptops, Facebook and Twitter, but there is a timelessness about the story that makes it as readable today as it was then. All women have a mother and many also have a daughter. It should remind us all to look deeper.

As a writer, I can only wonder how much of Ellen is Anna. Only Quindlen knows for sure, but  her experience caring for her own dying mother informs this story and makes it very real to her readers.

I also bought the movie  (at my fingertips in the iTunes Stores) and watched as Meryl Streep and Renee Zellweger brought Kate and Ellen to the screen. Both performances are flawless. We are talking about Meryl, after all. But the story, as it so often is, was changed for the movie. The book is better, but I always think that it is.

If you do read this book, I hope it reminds  you, this Sunday, when you stop to think about your own mother, to take a moment and let her out of the neat little box where you may have so lovingly placed her, and wonder who she really is or was.

One True Thing is dedicated to Prudence M. Quindlen, Anna’s mother.

One True Thing

Get your tissues ready.