BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Finding Truth as Death Looms : ONE TRUE THING <i> by Anna Quindlen</i> ; Random House $22, 320 pages
What a treat to read a good story told by a smart, if not always likable, narrator. We meet Ellen Gulden, the young woman at the heart of Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Anna Quindlen’s provocative second novel (the best-selling “Object Lessons” was her first), soon after she’s graduated from Harvard and taken a magazine job in New York.
The brightest and eldest of three children, she has always seen herself and been seen by others as her English professor father’s clone--literate, ironic, ambitious--rather than her homemaker mother’s daughter. Her life to date has been one academic triumph after another, your basic 99 percentile on the SATs type-A personality. She’s used to being in control, used to pleasant surprises, used to success.
And then her mother gets cancer. Her mother, Kate, whom Ellen has always regarded with affectionate condescension. Her mother the famous decorator of community Christmas trees. Her mother the why-buy-it-when-you-can-make-it craftsperson. Her mother the indestructible domestic.
Ellen complies with great resentment to her father’s demand that she relocate back home to manage the illness, a move that is clearly equally as difficult for her mother. Ellen is the girl child--far less involvement is expected of her younger brothers. Telling herself that the situation is only temporary, for her mother’s diagnosis is terminal, she does her duty.
As Quindlen deftly moves her story forward, the first jolt for Ellen--and for us--is the emergence of the real Kate Gulden. Forced to deal with her mother as a person and not just a parent, Ellen finds the 40-something Kate to be far more self-aware, complicated, and stoic than she ever suspected, a mature woman who has acquired wisdom that Ellen is intrigued to learn.
“The being happy,” her mother explains. “It’s so much easier, to learn to love what you have instead of yearning always for what you’re missing, or what you imagine you’re missing. It’s so much more peaceful.”
When mother and daughter form a book club consisting of only themselves, Kate reveals that she’s always been bored and annoyed with Jane Austen’s depiction of proper and contented female characters--the very type of woman Ellen has always imagined Kate to admire, to, in fact, be. “We’d made her simpler all her life, simpler than her real self,” Ellen explains to her brother. “We’d made her what we needed her to be. We’d made her ours, our one true thing.”
Almost simultaneously with drawing closer to Kate, Ellen’s estimation of her father diminishes--first from what strikes her as the unfairness of his imposition on her time, and later because of what she regards as his avoidance of his husbandly responsibility.
The family dynamic changes, evolves, divides for the first time along gender lines. Ultimately Ellen must accept the fact that she has had less of a comprehension of the inherent compromises of her parents’ union than she once imagined.
“No one knows what goes on inside a marriage,” she concludes. “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. . . . But I know from experience that those least capable of truly assessing any marriage are the children who come out of it. We style them as we need them, to excuse our faults, to insulate ourselves from our own expendability or indispensability.”
And then, one terrible night, Kate dies.
It was a mercy, almost anyone would agree. Kate had ceased to be herself, was subsumed by suffering. Her death was for the best, it would appear--until an autopsy reveals that the cause was not natural but an overdose of pain- killers. Ellen is falsely accused of euthanasia, and though she steadfastly denies committing the deed--more, she judges, from a lack of courage than from any moral or philosophical hesitations --she is arrested and charged with the crime.
In the process of awaiting an appearance before the grand jury, she becomes an unwilling poster girl for mercy killing, the unlikely catalyst for a raging national ethical debate, the public’s champion for an act she didn’t, in fact, perform . . . though she’s sure she knows who did.
It would be unfair to the reader to reveal the outcome of this unfailingly interesting conundrum, except to say that Quindlen is far too complex a writer and a thinker to settle for any facile solutions. And all along the way to the novel’s believable, satisfying conclusion, we are presented with insights and challenges to ponder, ideas that resonate concerning the nature and the method of change.
Finally, like Ellen herself, we leave “One True Thing” stimulated and challenged, more thoughtful than when we began.