by David Nicholls
My, my, what do we have here? A story set in the UK, primarily during the 90s? Ruminations on what defines fame and success? Loneliness and friendship and humour? (Yes, that’s humour with a ‘u.’) If I didn’t know any better, I’d think David Nicholls surveyed my brain and wrote a book accordingly.
One Day is an excellent book — one filled with as many funny moments as there are heart-crushing. Centered around the lives of Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, it spans twenty years of their friendship, but only on one day — Each chapter occurs on July 15th, St Swithin’s Day. They first meet in 1988, right after university graduation and can’t shake the feeling that the other should be an important part of their life. They spend the whole night talking:
‘I suppose the important thing is to make some sort of difference,’ she said. ‘You know, actually change something.’
‘What, like “change the world,” you mean?’
‘Not the entire world. Just the little bit around you.’
Emma is more immediately in love with Dexter, but shy and unsure of herself, she keeps her feelings (mostly) to herself. Living in London, she at first works in a horrible Mexican restaurant and tries to write, but mostly she wonders why she went through all this schooling only to be at this unhappy point in her life.
Dexter spends some years traveling, trying to figure out what he’d like to do with his life. His family finds his lack of direction frustrating, and he coasts through, waiting for some sort of inspiration to hit him. All the while, he is thinking of Emma. The two write letters to each other, which become more personal and comfortable over time.
You’re gorgeous, you old hag, and if I could give you just one gift ever for the rest of your life it would be this. Confidence. It would be the gift of Confidence. Either that or a scented candle.
Almost by accident, Dexter gets into television presenting, working for a late night show that’s seems to be a cross between Entertainment Tonight and MTV News. Gaining a moderate level of fame, so comes with it the Britpop 90s levels of excess. Meanwhile, Emma works to become an English and drama teacher. They both flounder through romantic relationships, but regularly spend time with one another, going to dinner and on holiday. At times, their friendship is strained, but at no point do they quit thinking about each other.
And he knows he’s being churlish, but it would help to see Emma in the audience. He’s a better person when she’s around, and isn’t that what friends are for, to raise you up and keep you at your best? Emma’s his talisman, his lucky charm, and now she won’t be there and his mother won’t be there, and he will wonder why he’s doing it all.
Though it may seem from my description that this is just 400 pages of longing glances and “Oh, won’t they just get together already?” type reading, it really isn’t. To accurately summarize the book, I’m afraid I’d give too much away. That’s trouble with really enjoying a book, I suppose — I start to lack, what I feel, is the adequate vocabulary to describe it, apart from “Oh, just read it already.” Like any great book, the turns in plot come as a surprise, but then in retrospect, also feel inevitable. It’s the sort of story where I once again bothered my husband by reading whole pages aloud, and then would later hug him and only say, “God, it’s just... it just rips out your chest, but in a good way.”
Just as realistic as the loneliness is the humour. Sly, self-deprecating and riffing on previous conversations, it’s full of all the good stuff a hopeless Anglophile like me loves. Emma’s writing jokes are also funny:
She drinks pints of coffee and writes little observations and ideas for stories with her best fountain pen on the linen white pages of expensive notebooks. 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 stationary.
Nick Hornby (one of my all-time favorites) found One Day to be “big, absorbing, smart, fantastically readable.” In those five words, he tells you all you need to know. I could pick out more of my favorite quotes and try to analyze my enjoyment, but that will ruin the magic. It’s one of my favorite books I’ve read this year.
Full disclosure: I won this book via giveaway on twitter, following @VintageAnchor. Otherwise, I am not affiliated with the publishing company. It is one of the few things that I’ve ever won, so how perfect that it was something I immensely enjoyed.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.