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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]