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[440] One Day – David Nicholls

” Love and be loved, if you ever get the chance. ” (22:433)

Imagine one day in a lifetime could make all the difference. It’s the day when something happens but one is not aware of its significance until, ruefully, much later in life that the bliss of this happenstance can only be appreciated in retrospection. This is what happens to Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew. One Day tracks the 20-year friendship between the two, who first met in university but never got to be friends until 1988, when they graduated. But after only one day together, they cannot stop thinking about one another. As each goes separate ways into the world of adulthood and career, the novel shrewdly reveals snapshots of this relationship on the same day, July 15, of each coming year.

At twenty-three, Dexter Mayhew’s vision of his future was no clearer than Emma Morley’s. He hoped to be successful, to make his parents proud and to sleep with more than one woman at the same time, but how to make these all compatible? He wanted to feature in magazine articles, and hoped one day for a retrospective of his work, without having any clear notion of what that work might be. He wanted to live life to the extreme, but without any mess or complications. (1:9)
(Emma) 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. 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. (1:12-13)

They both fulfill part of their resolution, but definitely with mess and complications because it’s life. Despite remaining friends, they are worlds apart. Dexter, a public school layout, golden boy, breaks to become TV celebrity, while Emma, a frustrated writer, makes a hand-to-mouth living as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant. As the possibility of a relationship has faded, Emma has endeavored to fortify herself against Dexter’s indifference. The unlikely relationship never enjoys good timing: Emma is involved with Ian when Dexter’s ephemeral stardom vanishes in thin air. Dexter is engaged to Sylvie, a no-nonsense prude who rids him clean of substance, when Emma decides to end the affair with the principal of the school where she teaches.

Sympathy for the spinster. I’m perfectly content, thank you. And I refuse to be defined by my boyfriend. Or lack of. Once you decide not to worry about the stuff anymore, dating and relationships and love and all that, it’s like you’re free to get on with real life. (13:286)

And so is how Emma gets on with her life: focusing on one thing for which she has passion—writing, instead of clinging on to the misery of a relationship not meant to be. As her star rises high, Dexter falls so deep. He realizes he has nobody to fall back into, but Emma.

Fluid, expertly paced, and keenly observed, David Nicholls’s witty prose, both funny and moving, has a transparency that really brings Dexter and Emma alive. The squabbles, fights, challenges, hopes, career ups and downs, and miss opportunities that confront them—they also confront us. In a way they become everymen without resorting to stereotype. Through Emma and Dexter, and what fate has thrown at them, we also see ourselves, whether in misery or in joy, as our lives progress.

And they did have fun, though it was of a different kind now. All that yearning and anguish and passion had been replaced by a steady pulse of pleasure and satisfaction and occasional irritation, and this seemed to be a happy exchange; if there had been moments in her life when she had been more elated, there had never been a time when things had been more constant. (18:380)

One Day is a great read. The device of tackling the same day in subsequent years encapsulates the ideal solution to the novel’s greatest challenge of knowing what to leave out and to include. For readers the focus on just one day a year is a constant allure and tease to read on, leaving room for imagination as to what happens during the rest of the year. Emma over the years becomes some life support that Dexter falls back into, a resource that he calls upon at any time like the emergency services. But no romance entails. As this peculiar relationship evolves over twenty years, Nicholls shows us a huge part of growing up and maturing occurring on the part of both. Beside the genuinely funny repartee and keen observations, Nichools allows readers into their emotions. Beneath the surface charm is a strong, prevailing undercurrent steering away light banter into the more troubled waters of love and its meaning.

435 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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22 Responses

  1. I’ve been wanting to read this one and also to see the movie. It sounds like I am in for a treat.

  2. I love the premise of this book but have heard mixed things about it which has made me not pick it up so far. If you liked it, however, I bet i will, too! Are you going to see the movie?

    • The appeal (and thus the constant draw) for me is that from day one Emma and Dexter were made for each other. Maybe because of timing, and that Dexter is totally blind to her affection, they never consummate the relationship. It’s a matter of allowing yourself to be loved. A great story and is told is a unique manner that accentuates the indifference of time.

  3. I had wondered whether you read this book or not, and to my surprise you just did! I’m so glad you liked it because I like it, too. And I guess I enjoy the feeling of knowing that other people like this book as well. This definitely became one of my favorite reads. I watched the film first, but the read was still as enjoyable as ever! 🙂

    • This book caught me by surprise, and I really liked it. I have to thank the hype of the movie, which finally decided for me to read the book.

  4. Like R.J., I’m quite surprised you enjoyed this one! When I read it last year (as a poolside vacation read), I I had heard so many good things about it, but I really did not connect with it at all. I found the characters really loathsome and could not care about them, and I also thought the ending was really manipulative. Ah well, these differences are what keep blogging interesting! 😀

    • See Steph, sometimes a change of subject in book can work magic for me. After all, I can’t be always reading Toni Morrison and E.M. Forster, right? 🙂 I like the writing style and the format more than the story itself. I find the focus on just one day every year a very suitable device to capture a 20-year relationship.

  5. I’m surprised you like this one, too! Like Steph, I found the characters hard to stick with for the whole of the book, and the story – especially the ending – felt so manipulative. I finished the book mostly so I could write the review up and have done with it. By the end, I thought I would scream if I had to read one more round of that “Dex and Emma, Emma and Dex” refrain. Still, it’s great to see a different opinion of the book, especially since I sometimes am a little unnerved by how closely your reviews mirror my own thoughts!

    • Haha! I’m having so fun reading about my blog reader’s surprise at my reading One day—and loving it! The story is definitely Hollywood-ready but somehow I feel sympathetic for Emma, who for once is sold out for a guy who would never recognize her affection. That really sticks with me and makes me read on.

  6. I don’t think the movie did the book any favors, which is a shame. Because the book is a treasure. When I was reading it, something about it seemed so FAMILIAR, so easy to read. It was like the love story lived in my heart somewhere and when I read this, I recognized it. Hard to explain. I loved the snappy British wit, and the message of enduring love. Not thrilled with the ending, a bit manipulative, but watcha gonna do? It was still a five star read for me.

    • The format is what makes the book unique. Honestly, I’ll find a chronological account of what is dating who and who is sharing the house with who over 20 years very tiresome. Nicholls is smart to just include enough of a bait to make you read on, without sacrificing important details regarding the nature of the relationship.

  7. An interesting review. I like the way you subtly hint at your opinions of this book! I am yet to read it but it on my virtual shelf.

  8. I loved the book and enjoyed your review! I’ve read equally negative reviews of this book and questioned my judgment a little bit, but I think it’s just a love it or hate it kind of book. The character of Emma really resonated with me, and their friendship, and the way they develop over time. And mostly I enjoyed it for the writing. Just didn’t care for the ending.

    • I resonate so much with the book because I see myself in Emma—in the way that I wear my heart on the sleeves and is completely sold out for someone I love.

  9. […] [440] One Day – David Nicholls […]

  10. You’re teasing me .. I will write the title in my notebook and try to find it !

  11. I was going to buy the book but knowing myself, I would have ended up not reading it. Not my kind of story and not my favourite genre. However, I do like your review. It does give us a pretty good idea of what to look for in the book.

    Btw, I quite like your blog. I have come across it when I was searching for a book by James Baldwin. Nicely organised and I have enjoyed reading your reviews 🙂

  12. I liked this book, but didn’t really love it. It has a Nicholas Sparks element in it which I try to avoid. But this one is unique. The readers are treated to snapshots of a couple’s journey towards being together. I just didn’t like the ending, I felt robbed.

    The film version didn’t do the book justice. I tried watching it but ended up fforwarding most scenes.

  13. Another great and thorough review – I read this book a while back now and have been deciding whether to pick up more of Nicholls books – have you read any of his others?

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