This was a tough one, emotionally. One True Thing is the story of a brilliant young woman “with her whole life ahead of her” who is guilted by her controlling and emotionally-arrested father into leaving her life behind to come home and care for her dying mother.
And it covers so much ground in a very gentle but sad way: gender roles, parenting, family dynamic, literature and poetry, agency, friendship, romance, and ultimately, euthanasia. At the very beginning of the story, Ellen tells us that she was at one time arrested for the wrongful death of her mother, who overdosed on morphine at the end of her battle with cancer. Then: a jump backwards in time to her childhood, the framework of her upbringing, the journey back home, and the reconnection with her mother during the final months of her life.
It’s not an unusual mother-daughter dynamic, which makes it easier to digest as a reader, which then allows the sadness just to spread, well, like a cancer, as Ellen’s mother’s inevitable death approaches.
It’s a feeling that permeates in a really effective way, and I wish that Quindlen hadn’t tried to inject any dramatic tension into the mix. She attempts to make the reader worry about Ellen’s fate after the arrest, and there’s a “twist” near the end related to her dynamic with her father that I really thought undercut the majority of the story. I found myself looking back and finding that it just didn’t fit, narratively or emotionally. It’s too bad, to have something so quiet and wonderfully introspective marred by unnecessary action-for-the-sake-of-action.