One Minus One

Cover image for One Minus One by Ruth Doan MacDougallby Ruth Doan MacDougall


Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Midwinter 2013

“My personality, I was learning, always somewhat disappeared into other people’s, and always had, even alone all day writing in Thornhill, when I become my people I wrote. I had been David nearly forever, but briefly, superficially, I had been Warren.”

Originally published in 1971, One Minus One is a Nancy Pearl Book Lust Rediscovery which has been re-released by Amazon Publishing. A housewife and aspiring writer, thirty-year-old Emily’s world is rocked when her husband, David, divorces her to marry the guidance counsellor at the school where he works. Married to David right out of university, Emily never worked as a teacher herself but, determined not to accept alimony from David, she takes a job as an English teacher in Millstead, New Hampshire to support herself. Unhappy with her work as a teacher, and not having written a word since the divorce, Emily struggles to find and define herself separately from David, who she fell in love with when she was fifteen. She begins dating again, first Warren, a local morning radio host, and then Cliff, the head of the English department at the high school. But despite her efforts to move on, Emily can’t get past David.

Slow moving in terms of plot, One Minus One is a character-centred story that focuses on Emily’s struggle to tease out her own personality and separate herself from her past with David. Only once she is alone does she realize how much he defined her. Emily has a quiet, disarming uncertainty which make her sympathetic, even though she could be accused of wallowing in sorrow. She evinces a brave determination to become independent and find her way through situations she never thought she would face. It is easy to feel protective of Emily, and to root for her to come out alright in the end. I wanted to her to find love, and to find herself, all the while worrying that, for Emily, the two goals might not be compatible quite yet.

Set in 1969, this book shows it age in small details; the characters wear bell-bottom pants and earn miniscule salaries by modern standards. It is a portrait of divorce in a particular time, but it retains a strong emotional resonance which ensures that it still remains relevant today. The cliff hanger ending will likely leave some readers unhappy, but the sudden ending shows how much we’ve come to care about Emily in the space of such a short novel (160 pages). She stayed with me for several days before I was able to make peace with not knowing her fate.

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