Some books we read because we know they’re good for us. For example, this seems to be my year of Graham Greene, though at least he’s made me laugh with the last two I’ve read. But I didn’t realise how many of those I was slogging through until I found myself devouring One Day by David Nicholls, and feeling almost guilty about it. Fittingly, I inhaled it within 24 hours, with a fervour I haven’t felt since The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, or The Time Traveler’s Wife.
It’s a love story, but then it’s never that simple, is it? Less “boy-meets-girl” than “boy and girl crush on each other from afar, hook up at the end of uni, settle into friendship and play roles of varying importance in each others’ lives”. Apologies, but folks, this is going to be a long one…
The premise is clever – checking in with the two protagonists for a single day each year (July 15), for a couple of decades. But what makes the book special isn’t the overarching story so much as Nicholls’ effervescent prose and the sharp eye with which the characters are lovingly, gently mocked. Not to mention the accuracy of the pop cultural landmarks, as we follow Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley through their 20s and 30s, from Edinburgh to London and various other international destinations.
You can’t help but fall in love a bit with the two leads, as imperfect and frustrating as they are. Because they’re US. Embarrasingly idealistic, aimless, careless and blasé, self-conscious and self-centred, narcissistic. When we first meet them, in Emma’s student flat the night after they graduate from college in Edinburgh, Nicholls’ descriptions of the characters are vivid enough to jolt we readers back to our own early 20s. It’s 1988 and Emma is bookish, political and utterly lacking in self-confidence:
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. In his last four years he had seen any number of bedrooms like this, dotted round the city like crime scenes, rooms where you were never more than six feet from a Nina Simone album, and though he’d rarely seen the same bedroom twice, it was all too familiar. The burnt out nightlights and desolate pot plants, the smell of washing powder on cheap, ill-fitting sheets. She had that arty girl’s passion for photomontage too; flash-lit snaps of college friends and family jumbled in amongst the Chagalls and Vermeers and Kandinskys, the Che Guevaras and Woody Allens and Samuel Becketts. Nothing here was neutral, everything displayed an allegiance or a point of view. The room was a manifesto, and with a sigh Dexter recognised her as one of those girls who used ‘bourgeois’ as a term of abuse. He could understand why ‘fascist’ might have negative connotations, but he liked the word ‘bourgeois’ and all that it implied. Security, travel, nice food, good manners, ambition; what was he meant to be apologising for?
Dex himself is raffishly gorgeous and has no problems with confidence; it’s something of a blessing he exists in a time before Facebook:
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. He wanted to live life in such a way that if a photograph were taken at random, it would be a cool photograph.
One year later, Emma is carefully crafting mix tapes and airmail letters to Dex, loaded with barely concealed longing; in return she is left searching for hidden meanings in postcards scrawled with things like “DUBLIN IS MAD.. SHOCKING HANGOVER” and “VENICE IS ABSOLUTELY FLOODED”. Some years their stories converge, others they are barely peripheral in the other’s life. The device’s strength is showing the contrast between how the characters see themselves and how others see them.
Later, I couldn’t help but squirm in recognition as Emma struggles to write something she’s proud of:
Emma stopped writing, then looked away and stared at the ceiling, as if giving someone a chance to hide. She looked back at the page in the hope of being surprised by the brilliance of what was there…
Sometimes, when it’s going badly, she wonders if what she believes to be a love of the written word is really just a fetish for stationery. The true writer, the born writer, will scribble words on scraps of litter, the back of bus tickets, on the wall of a cell. Emma is lost on anything less than 120gsm.
Meanwhile, Dex drifts effortlessly into presenting garish late night television, a cautionary tale of the perils of low level celebrity. After they fight and drop out of contact for years, they’re eventually forced into the same circles again with the dreaded “third wave” of weddings, and here Nicholls is hilariously acute – the first wave of weddings were jokey, low-budget affairs, college students taking the piss out of outdated bourgeois traditions. The second wave were still fairly austere, couples in their 20s marrying on shoestrings. The fourth wave will be quiet weddings too, being mostly second marriages and over before 10pm on account of all the kids. But the third wave of weddings are the expensive, ostentatious nuptials of people in their 30s and “no one is laughing anymore”.
You could argue it’s Brit lad/chick lit in the vein of Nick Hornby or Helen Fielding; a less broadly satirical Bridget Jones. But the humour never overpowers what is essentially a story about growing up. One of the simplest, loveliest lines is late in the book when people ask Dex and Em how they met, and they just say “we grew up together”.
I won’t spoil the ending but, y’know, I laughed, I cried, etc. More than that, I dog-eared countless pages and marked countless passages that sang with resonance, and thought of a dozen people I wanted to lend my copy to immediately… after I finished reading it a second time.
One Day will make a great movie – particularly the period details – and it’s already being made. Much as I’ve resented her since my ex made a flippant remark about her hotness (it’s disturbing the irrational mental hitlist I have based on such comments), I must admit Anne Hathaway seems a great casting choice for Em.
So: One Day. Check it out. You can read an excerpt here; and the author has cutely included one of Em’s mix tapes.