52 pages 1 hour read

Taylor Jenkins Reid

One True Loves

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2016

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Summary and Study Guide


One True Loves (2016) is a novel written by Taylor Jenkins Reid. The story follows Emma Blair, a young woman, whose husband, Jesse, is presumed dead after he goes missing in a helicopter crash. When he is found alive years later, Emma has moved on and is now engaged to another man. Reid is a New York Times bestselling author of numerous books, including Carrie Soto is Back (2022), The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (2017), and Daisy Jones and The Six (2019)—the latter of which has been adapted into a limited series. Through Emma’s conflict in One True Loves, Reid explores themes of soulmates and everlasting love, family expectations and identity, and how individuals and relationships grow and change over time.

This guide is based on the Simon and Schuster UK Kindle Edition.

Plot Summary

The Prologue sets up the novel’s context and central conflict: the return of Emma Blair’s first husband, Jesse Lerner, from his presumed death, just two months after she gets engaged to another man, Sam Kemper. Part 1 follows Emma’s high school life and relationship with Jesse, Jesse’s disappearance, and her eventual engagement to Sam. Part 2 explores how Emma deals with Jesse’s reappearance.

Emma is born and raised in Acton, Massachusetts, where her parents own and run a bookstore, Blair Books, founded by her great-uncle. She has an older sister, Marie, with whom she is not close; Marie is the perfect “Bookseller’s Daughter”—smart, popular, an avid reader and aspiring writer. Emma is far less popular at school and hates reading—she wants to leave Acton as soon as possible and travel the world instead. In her freshman year, she comes across Jesse Lerner, a classmate who is handsome and popular, and considered a prodigy swimmer. Emma develops a crush on him, but is forced to quell her feelings when he starts going out with another girl. While working a shift at Blair Books one evening, she is asked out by Sam, a boy who also works at the store and is a couple of years older than her. Emma finds Sam cute, but is overwhelmed by her crush on Jesse and unable to reciprocate his feelings; Sam backs off, and Emma and Sam eventually become close friends.

Sam graduates high school at the end of Emma’s sophomore year. They end up attending the same high school party after graduation, where Jesse is also present; Jesse has since broken up with his girlfriend. Emma and Jesse have a conversation at the party, in which Jesse confesses that he hates swimming despite being extremely good at it, and Emma reveals that she hates reading despite her parents owning Blair Books. They encourage each other to follow their dreams: Emma to leave Acton and attend college in California, and Jesse to quit competitive swimming. There is a spark between the two, and they kiss that night; that summer, they fall in love, and Sam leaves town for college without saying goodbye to Emma.

Emma and Jesse eventually go to the University of Los Angeles together. Emma takes a travel writing class in college because it subsidizes trips for students, and discovers she loves writing as much as traveling. Against all expectations, she graduates college with a journalism degree, and goes on to become a travel writer, while Jesse works as a production assistant on nature documentaries. Jesse proposes to Emma when they are 25, and they get married at his parents’ family cabin in Maine. The day before their first wedding anniversary, Jesse leaves on a last-minute work trip to Alaska; however, his helicopter crashes. Jesse goes missing and is presumed dead like the other three passengers on board. A devastated Emma moves back to Acton to be with her family.

Emma gives up travel writing to focus on grieving and healing, and discovers reading along the way. Her sister Marie is married and a new mother to twin girls, and lives close by. Marie chooses to stay home with the girls a while longer after her maternity leave, so Emma takes over her job at Blair Books, and discovers that she loves it. She also realizes that she does not desire to travel anymore; she wants to stay in Acton for good, living out her life managing Blair Books. Emma eventually changes her last name back to Blair and cuts her hair short. She also decides to take up the piano, and runs into Sam at a music store where she is looking to buy one. Sam is now a music teacher, and after helping Emma pick out a piano, asks her out on a date. Emma and Sam get along as they always have; a year into their relationship, they move in together, and Sam proposes.

Two months after Emma’s engagement, she gets a call from Jesse: He is in Hawaii, still alive, and is coming home. After seven weeks of treatment and rehabilitation, Jesse flies down to Acton. Emma meets him at the airport, and they have an emotional reunion. Jesse gives Emma a brief summary of what happened to him: He ended up stranded on a small island at sea, the sole survivor of the helicopter crash. When he realized people weren’t looking for him, he decided to train himself to swim into the open water. It took him two years to work up to the task, subsisting on rainwater, mussels, and raw fish in the meantime. When Jesse finally made the swim, he was picked up by a ship within two days of swimming.

Jesse is relieved to hear that Emma is not already married to someone else, and he resolves to normalize things between them. A conflicted Emma goes home to Sam that night; an equally conflicted Sam decides to postpone their wedding and end things between them for the time being, until Emma can figure out what she wants. Emma moves back to her parents’ place, and agrees to spend a few days with Jesse at his family’s cabin in Maine. At the cabin, Emma and Jesse are initially overjoyed to have each other back; however, they quickly discover that they have each changed in irrevocable ways. They love each other, but are not right for each other anymore. Emma and Jesse mutually agree to end their relationship and head home. Emma and Sam reconcile and eventually get married. Jesse moves back to California, and a few months after Emma’s wedding, calls her to tell her that he, too, has met someone. Emma and Jesse acknowledge how impactful the other has been in shaping who they are as people, before they bid each other goodbye.