Contemporary Fiction / Highly Recommended

Review: One Day by David Nicholls

One Day is the story of a friendship that begins in college and grows over twenty years.  It’s the story of Dexter and Emma, who meet at the University of Edinburgh in the late 1990s and sort-of hook up the night of graduation.  Dexter barely knows Emma, but Emma’s had a crush on Dexter for some time.  He’s that kind of guy – good-looking, confident, charming.  He’s heading off to Europe for a long post-graduation roam around the world, while she’s off to start life in the real world the next day.  Neither of them expects to see each other after that one night.

This book hooked me from the very first chapter.  It all sounds very cliché but it’s not.  I think in some ways we’re all kind of cliche when we’re about twenty, because we’re still forming our identities.  Emma is very smart, politically conscious, hopeless about dating and sex, attractive but doesn’t believe it, and terrified of her future.  Dex is vain, shallow, pretty sure everything is going to go his way, and just wants to have as much fun as possible. They each size each other up and find the other slightly ridiculous.

Here’s Dexter’s take on Emma:

He exhaled through his nose and shuffled up the bed, taking in the shabby rented room, knowing with absolute confidence that somewhere in amongst the art postcards and photocopied posters for angry plays there would be a photograph of Nelson Mandela, like some dreamy ideal boyfriend… Feeling for an ashtray, he found a book at the side of the bed.  The Unbearable Lightness of Being, spine creased at the ‘erotic’ bits.  The problem with these fiercely individualistic girls was that they were all exactly the same.

And Emma’s take on Dexter:

Clearly he knew he was being looked at because he tucked one hand beneath his armpit, bunching up his pectorals and biceps.  Where did the muscles come from?  Certainly not sporting activity, unless you counted skinny-dipping and playing pool.  Probably it was just the kind of good health that was passed down in the family, along with the stocks and shares and the good furniture.

And yet, each of them sees something in the other that makes them want to know more.  So while it’s no surprise they don’t work out as a couple, the surprise is how deep their friendship grows.

This is a book about a powerful friendship.  It’s also about whether two people can love each other even while not in a romantic relationship (at some point one of the characters even refers to the movie When Harry Met Sally).  It’s that but more.  It’s a book about the twists and turns our lives take between twenty and forty, and  how the people in our lives help us along the way.

After graduation, Dexter’s life soars, and Emma’s life plummets  Dexter tours Europe and India, and then accidentally lands a plum television job.  Dexter’s overwhelming confidence in himself, despite having no skills and no real academic background in anything, leads him to great success.  Emma, on the other hand, wants to be a writer but takes the only job she can find, working in a Mexican fast food place.  She hates the job but the longer she stays there, the worse she feels, and the harder it is to go out and find a better job because she has nothing on her resume.

Dex and Emma’s friendship becomes fairly strained during this time.  Dex doesn’t understand why Emma doesn’t make more of herself, and Emma feels like Dex is mocking her with his fancy job and model girlfriends.

It doesn’t stay that way, though.  As Dex and Emma go through their twenties and thirties, their lives change constantly.  The book made me think a lot about growing older, and what it means to change and grow and live the life you want, while still hanging on to that person you were in college. It reminded me in a lot of ways of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, although these are very different books.  I guess I’m just at that age.  At one  point in your life you think you’ll never live in a cookie cutter house in the suburbs, or have a job you can’t stand, or spend your Saturday night with a good book instead of drinking and dancing.  And then along the way you make those choices, because that’s how life works, and I think that’s how it’s supposed to work.  Maybe you marry, have children, divorce, care for your parents, even lose someone you love.  That’s getting older.  And which is the real you, the college-you or the grown-up you?  Did you lose yourself along the way?  Find yourself along the way?  What does it mean to live your life well?

Now I’m just rambling — Emma actually puts it much better:

The trick of it, she told herself, is to be courageous and bold and make a difference.  Not change the world exactly, just the bit around you.  Go out there with your double-first, your passion and your new Smith Corona electric typewriter and work hard at … something. Change lives through art maybe.  Write beautifully.  Cherish your friends, stay true to your principles, live passionately and fully and well.  Experience new things.  Love and be loved if at all possible.  Eat sensibly.  Stuff like that.

I suspect Nicholls is my age, or close to it, since this book ends up with the characters in their late thirties.  I’m interested to know how this book reads for someone who’s a different age, younger or older.  Not that we can’t read a book about people with different perspectives — that’s what reading is all about after all.

Other things I loved about this book:

I love British writers so the British-ness of this book was a real plus for me.  If you don’t read a lot of British writers you might struggle with some of the language but not too much.  I loved the settings in London and Edinburgh.  There’s a scene towards the end that describes Edinburgh so perfectly– it brought back happy memories of one of my favorite trips.

I also liked the structure of the book, which I didn’t even notice until pretty far into the book.  The writer takes the day Dex and Emma meet, July 15, and describes that day each year (hence the title One Day).  The interesting thing about that is that some years a lot is happening and some years not so much, or it might be a big day for Emma and a not-so-good day for Dex.  It could have easily been confusing, but Nicholls does a great job of catching you up on all the events so the transitions from year to year are really smooth.

Most of all, I loved the characters.  Now Dex is a hard character to like, and at times I wondered why, as a reader,  I stayed with him.  But he’s so vulnerable even when he’s being arrogant and mean, and the way his voice is written you see right through all that.  Like Emma, you keep wanting him to be a better person.  Emma is a character I strongly identified with. I really wanted her to succeed and be happy, and I almost felt I was with her — cheering for her on the ups and sympathizing with her on the downs.

What happens down the road?  I won’t tell.  Go out and read this book.

6 thoughts on “Review: One Day by David Nicholls

  1. every once in a while i think about reading this book but for some reason i’ve been hesitant. halfway through your review, though, i stopped to avoid any maybe spoilers.. this sounds like the perfect book for me to be reading right now.

    • Ellen, I try pretty hard not to spoil — but like you if I’m interested in a book I’ll stop early on in the review. It’s hard to know what bit of information will be telling too much. I hope you enjoy it!

  2. I know that I am seriously in the minority on this one, but I didn’t think that it lived up to the hype at all. Glad that you enjoyed it.

  3. I liked this one for many of the same reasons you did–but did I *love* it? I don’t think so. I think I’d choose a Nick Hornby book over this one, if I was recommending a good Brit-fiction novel (which reminds me to pick up “Juliet, Naked”!).

    • Juliet, Naked was terrific, so you won’t hear any argument from me about Nick Hornby. I didn’t expect to love One Day, because I didn’t like one of Nicholl’s earlier books. I just really related to it. Any other Brit-fiction suggestions?

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