ABOUT the time that her second novel, ``One True Thing,'' was published, Anna Quindlen announced she was giving up her job as a nationally syndicated columnist for the New York Times to devote herself full time to fiction writing. Quindlen is expected to leave her job at the end of the year, and though her columns will undoubtedly be missed, fiction readers have reason to celebrate.
As a columnist, Quindlen is known for tackling tough, often deeply personal topics with compassion and insight. If ``One True Thing'' is any indication, we can expect the same of her future novels.
``One True Thing'' is, at its core, the story of a mother and daughter. The daughter, the novel's narrator, is 24-year-old Ellen Gulden, smart, overly ambitious, always trying to live up to her English professor father's expectations, and a bit scornful of her old-fashioned mother.
The mother is Kate Gulden, a homemaker, family peacemaker, and nurturer, who is dying of cancer. At her father's command, Ellen gives up her apartment and promising magazine job in New York to come home and care for her mother.
Years later, looking back, Ellen muses: ``I think that the people I know now believe I went home to take care of my mother because I loved her. And sometimes I believe that was in my heart without my knowing it. But the truth is that I felt I had no choice. I felt I had to be what my father wanted me to be, even if it was something so unlike the other Ellen he'd cultivated and tutored for all those years....''
The beauty of this book is its long first section, when Kate and Ellen take tentative steps toward establishing a relationship. They spend their days reading together, discussing their past, and trying to live ``normally,'' though both privately recognize that nothing will ever be normal again. During her time at home, Ellen realizes neither of her parents are who she thought they were: ``I felt as though I was losing both my parents at the same moment, although I did not feel in the slightest like a child. I saw them with the cold eye of the adult now.''
Quindlen goes to great lengths not to sugarcoat this blossoming relationship between mother and daughter. Kate often cries silently on the couch and later begins to lash out in anger at her family. Ellen, feeling as though she is sinking beneath the weight of a life she once gave little thought to, grows increasingly bitter over her father's distance and the fact that she's doing a job he should be doing. ``Do you grieve? Do you care? Do you ever cry? And how did you let her get to this point in the first place?'' she asks him.
The shorter second section of ``One True Thing'' falters somewhat. After Kate's death, Ellen is accused of helping her die in a so-called mercy killing. She spends a night in jail and later testifies before a grand jury. The townspeople, convinced Ellen is guilty, all form opinions about whether or not the killing was justified. Few people other than her brother and a sympathetic elementary school teacher believe in her innocence.
The action and suspense are heightened in this section, but the novel also moves from a believable scenario to one much less so. Perhaps the author felt she needed a hot-button issue to justify her book. But Quindlen is at her best when she sticks to the novel's central theme - what it means to have and to be a mother.