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11.11 book group // book 1.11 // review

When I’m reading a book, and loving it, I start getting fidgety nervous as I get closer to the end. So I count the pages, then start counting them down in my head. Part of me (the part that can’t keep a good birthday present secret) wants to know what is going to happen, wants to ruin the surprise of the last chapter. The other part of me wants to slow everything down, try all my usual diversionary tactics to avoid coming to the end of a book I’m enjoying.

But when I’m really loving the novel, I’m the book worm cliche who can’t put the book down. It goes everywhere with me. Everywhere. Until I get to the end, read the last page again and then finally, reluctantly, set the story aside.

I had a rushed, read all the way to the end, read the last page again experience with David Nicholls’ One Day. I loved it a little bit. I hope you did too.

If you haven’t finished the book yet, stop here, go back to your copy and finish it. Because here come some spoilers.

You have been warned.

One Day follows the life and love (unrequited and otherwise) of Emma and Dexter – two people who meet at university, enjoy an awkward fumble on graduation day then go their separate ways. The book returns to them every year on the same day, St. Swithin’s Day, following how their paths cross, diverge again, how they lust after, hate, love and then painfully, heartbreakingly lose each other completely. See. Told you there would be spoilers.

When I heard about One Day it sounded like a high-concept novel, built purely on premise and casually rambling around the two decades it fondly covers. But it really is so much more than that. Yes, it is the story of two people, not really star-crossed but hopelessly misreading each other at times. But it is also a tale of how your life can evolve in ways you’re not entirely happy with, only to find out that perhaps fate had it right all the time.

Em and Dex (we are on abbreviated first name terms now) spend “one really nice night” and an awkward morning together in 1988. Em has always had a little thing for the swaggering Dexter who has “the knack of looking perpetually posed for a photograph.” You know the type. He’s lovely and he knows it. She falls for him, but tries so hard to remain aloof and uninterested – and fails and falls for him. Hard. But there is something about them, that keeps bringing them back together across the years, the continents, the others. But I have to admit, although I got how Emma became so attached to Dexter, indulged him as a marauding media-type, C-list TV presenter, drug-fuelled friend, I never really understood what it was about Emma that made Dexter feel so connected to her. She was useful to him, always listening, pricking his interest in the love-life lulls – perhaps it was her ordinariness that grounded him. A place of safety, a friendly port in the storm. That was of course, until I read the coda at the end (more of that in a mo).

What is obvious in the witty banter they bat back and forth is that they are the best versions of themselves with each other. Because of the humour, I could read this book and enjoy the language, the drawing of characters and social visual triggers as the years flow past – but it was also a quick read, easy on the ear and enjoyable. You don’t notice how hard it is working because it is so finely crafted together – so what on the surface is a story about naieve, unrequited love, also has something deeper to say about loneliness and how we compromise on the dreams we have for ourselves. God, hopefully I’m a bit young to be letting go of things. But really, the dream of prima ballerina is dead, dead, dead. Because the daily intake of cake is eat, eat, eat. Ah well, good trade. Ish.

Emma has a more difficult post-uni experience than Dexter. Things tend to fall in place for him, whereas she has to work harder and without reward. Life in London is a long line of disappointment for her. She settles – in a soul-destroying job, for an unfunny-comedian boyfriend and I feel for her. But she is dedicated and sincere and keeps going. All the time watching the person she loves enjoy the best of life without appreciation. It’s a hard pill to swallow. But the friendship that flourishes despite all of this is endearing and enjoyable – and I want it to work and that is why the book succeeds, because I’m emotionally invested in the characters and their lives.

I always love a good sub-plot and One Day gives me that with tears on top. To watch Dexter’s family fall apart after the death of his mother is heartbreaking. Maybe the emotional hang-ups that keep him from falling freely for Emma in the beginning, are the same parts in him that makes the family loss so unbearable. It’s the tenderness in these moments that kept me on Dexter’s side – and he sometimes comes very close to losing me.

Emma gives up on him too. Once. And I cheered her on during that. All the time flicking forward a few chapters, just to make sure it all comes right in the end. And it does. After a painful, failed marriage, Dexter finds Emma again. It’s no coincidence that they chat in a maze and come out together. Their trajectory is linked, always has been.

So by the time they finally, fully, honestly get together, well we know don’t we? We just KNOW that this is not how the book will end. SPOILER ALERT. The tragic accident that ends Emma’s life and breaks them apart comes just at the point that we see Dexter at his happiest, his most settled. The stuff of great stories, right? Sing the Smiths with me…and if a ten ton truck

Well the flashback that follows is one of those great little literary tricks that lets you experience the book all over again, and in an altered light. We revisit their last time together at university, how they actually parted company and just the little chink in Dexter’s armour of arrogance. Now I get it. Now I understand his connection to Emma throughout and forever.

As I’m writing this, I’m listening to the spotify playlist of the mix tape that Emma makes for Dexter. I’ve never heard Billy Bragg’s St Swithin’s Day before, but it is such a smooth, resonant fit with the novel – a little bit raw but beautiful.

They’ve already made the film and Anne Hathaway is Bridget Jonesing-it-up as Emma. So thank god I managed to read it before the dreaded film tie-in cover. Which I would have hated and avoided at all costs. I’m not sure what I think about the casting. I loved Anne in The Devil Wears Prada, but as usual with on screen adaptations, she seems a bit too tall and pretty and perfect to be the Emma in my head. The one who was beautiful in the right light, but otherwise average. Wouldn’t Dexter, clapping eyes on Anne-as-Emma just have bedded her and moved on? I would have liked to see someone play Emma who was more of a visual slow burner. But I’m prepared to go to the flicks, be proved totally wrong and love this story all over again.

A long post deserves an image, or two. So here is Sophie and “poppy horse” who both turned up to help with my book 2 reveal this month. After we were turfed out of the library (more on that later) we wondered off out into the sunshine. Win! This kid has great attitude. You would not mess with this girl and her horse. A little bit of sunglasses modelling and I’m sure she’s channeling Liam Gallagher.

little girl with attitude // © kate griffin photography 2011 // guildford child photographer

So it is over to you. I’ve had my (very long) say and I’d love to know what you think about the book. Did you think the structure limited it all? Sometimes I felt like I wanted to peek into another part of the year to see what they were up to, almost as if I was missing something quite important. Some might call the plot-line ordinary, where boy-meets-girl like thousands of others before. But for me it felt like mashed potato – a whole lot of comfort.

You may have hated it. (Really? Sorry about that. I’ll try harder with book 2.)

Either way, let me know in the comments section below what you think and feel about One Day. Remind me of your favourite bits from the book. My short-term memory is terrible (awful for a English Lit undergrad) because I’d love to remember the little bits you loved.

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  • February 18, 2011 - 8:14 am

    Rosie Bray - Hi, I’m not officially in the book club but I read your post (beautifully written by the way) and as I really enjoyed reading One Day last summer I thought I’d chip in, hope that’s ok. My memory is also rubbish and I’m also an Eng Lit grad and what’s worse is since my degree (nearly 15 years ago now eek!) I hardly ever read novels. I am addicted to magazines and reference books (camera guides, small business books etc) but I only read novels when I’m on holiday and then like you I am obsessive about them and don’t put them down until they’re finished. So, my memories of the details of One Day are sketchy but I do remember that I loved it, in the same way that I loved the Time Travellers Wife the summer before. I was a bit more drawn to Dexter (I’ve been a TV producer for 10 years so I recognise his type and I can tell you TV is not nearly as glamourous as he makes it out to be!) and sometimes felt Emma a little too worthy/bookish, though most of the time I admired her stoicism.
    I also found the episodes with Dexter’s mum really touching and I’m sure I shed a tear or two.
    I enjoyed all the different relationships they had with the people who weren’t right for them and especially Emma’s with the unfunny comedian and the inappropriate affair with the headmaster.
    I definitely spent the whole time wanting them to get together and was delighted when that finally happened but I guess we all knew that it wouldn’t be a simple happy ending. It was still a really successful shock that Emma died and I loved the way David Nichols wrote about it and the thing he said about her having no more thoughts was a really brilliantly brutal way to put it and that has stayed with me. I like that none of the death was overhyped or gushing and I enjoyed the following chapters showing Dexter’s grief and eventual recovery – to show you that life goes on and you can learn to cope with anything. Still, they were brilliantly tinged with sadness and again I’m pretty sure I was crying through most of those last chapters (I’m emotionally incontinent).
    Overall, I really enjoyed it. Not quite Cathy and Heathcliff but certainly a great modern day love story with all the twists and turns and near misses you want in a story about destiny and fate.
    I totally agree about Anne Hathaway, I really can’t imagine her as Emma. I’d have someone more like Ellen Page. And maybe Armie Hammer as Dex…
    Anyway, I have rambled on long enough! Thanks Kate! I wish I could say I will keep up with book club but I know I am rubbish at reading novels but I’d be very interested to see what you have for book 2 anyway.
    One Day was a great choice and I look forward to reading other people’s views on it.ReplyCancel

  • February 19, 2011 - 8:12 am

    Fiona Humberstone - I am going to get myself onto Amazon and buy that book. Have only read up to the end of your intro para but you write so beautifully that you have sold me the book! Happy Saturday Kate xReplyCancel

  • February 19, 2011 - 10:24 am

    Kirsten - Just finished it. I did like it, a lot. Starter For Ten arrived this morning xReplyCancel

  • February 19, 2011 - 11:33 am

    Pam - LOVED the book!!! I either love or hate books, if I hate them I give up very easily. This one however, I couldn’t put down. Totally +1 all your comments (you write so much better than me!) – yes I was also wondered why he was so struck on Emma, but loved their relationship, was totally gutted when she died, brought a lump to my throat. I really didn’t want it to end. Looking forward to book 2.ReplyCancel

  • February 19, 2011 - 12:23 pm

    Kim Layzell - Haven’t read it yet as husband claimed it when I bought it back from the library!!! He finished this morning and said it’s one of the best books he’s read (and he’s hard to please) so really can’t wait to start it later. Will have to come back and read this blog as quickly moved down when I saw the spoiler warning. Looking forward to seeing what you suggest next.

    Thanks KateReplyCancel

  • February 19, 2011 - 5:13 pm

    Sophie's Mum - I studied English Lit at uni too, with Kate, and she outshone me in every way. She actually loves reading whereas I just tolerate it. I have the concentration span to cope with a newspaper, but don’t usually do novels, much to Kate’s disgust. However, unusually for me, I actually read a book last year and it happened to be ‘One Day’. I picked it up in the library, before the librarian managed to kick me (and my hyperactive daughter) out. And I had read it before Kate even mentioned its existence – one-nil to me!

    As it was such a long time ago, I too struggle to remember most of the details, but I do remember loving it and crying hopelessly in the bath whilst reading the end, then trying to pass off my red puffy eyes as the result of a too-hot bath (my husband doesn’t do books at all and would therefore have no sympathy!) It was such a simple premise for a book but so beautifully wrought that I was in awe of Nicholls’ skill as a storyteller. I loved – and at times disliked – both of the characters equally. Yet I found a few of the cultural references in the novels – necessary, I suppose, to make the reader believe that Emma and Dexter’s lives were real – too self-conscious and therefore irritating. That aside, I thought ‘One Day’ was a magnificent book, definitely worth braving the wrath of the librarians for. I might even go back to the library again to track down the book group book!ReplyCancel

  • February 20, 2011 - 10:49 am

    Julie Tinton - Witty, funny and very moving. I loved every single page of this book and became totally absorbed in the characters. Seeing Emma struggle after university with all those wonderful qualifications and her While Dexter just seemed to fall effortlessly into his charmed career and not even appreciate it. (I still couldn’t stop liking him though). Neither of them ever appeared truly happy and the book touched on the insecurities and loneliness of growing up in this big bad world and how cruel fate can actually be.

    A great choice Kate!ReplyCancel

  • February 20, 2011 - 3:26 pm

    Paula O'Hara - Kate I don’t think I could critique this book quite as eloquently as you have here, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable read.
    I was hooked in right from the start. In fact I did not put it down for a week. I’m glad you chose this book for us as it wouldn’t have been something I’d ever have went for. My house is full of gothic escapism and period drama! But I feel so much better for having read it.
    There was humour and heartache throughout. I did cry when Emma died as they had just got it together after all that time. It was easy to feel for the characters especially when they messed up. They were so real and engaging and it was set in times I could really relate to. Dex’s character left a lasting impression on me. The author showed such a deep understanding of the human condition in creating him. Even though there were times when you just wanted to shake him, his vulnerability made him easy to love. It was great growing up with Em and Dex for a while.
    Alot of people who are celeb-obsessed could do with reading this book, as it really does prove that the famous are not Gods but humans just like us and wanting desparately to be loved. And fame is a very fickle thing. Anne Hathaway is so wrong for the role of Emma. I know Hollywood like to choose box-office favourites but even her co-star, Emily Brunt in ‘The Devil wears Prada’ would have been a much better choice.
    Looking forward to the next book.xReplyCancel

  • February 20, 2011 - 3:28 pm

    Paula O'Hara - I mean Emily Blunt. Why do I always spell-check comments after I’ve posted them?ReplyCancel

  • February 20, 2011 - 8:18 pm

    Louisa Rose - I finished reading this book in the first week. And Kate, you have summed up perfectly my thoughts on this book. I adored the subplot dare I say more than the actual story! I loved how it touched on the tough journey that life really can be. I liked how honest the writing was when highlighting the insecurities we all feel about our place in the world but rarely speak. I guessed quite early on with the way that Dexter seemed to ‘rely’ on Em that she might die but it didn’t make it any less hard to read and didn’t make the read less enjoyable.

    I loved Emma, she was so funny and I liked the way the story was mainly told concentrating on Dex with Em being the rock in his life, so that when she dies we grieved with Dex. we understood how special Em was and missed her. Ultimately for me this story was the tale of how Dex and people like him find life harder than others whilst Em pretty much had it sorted all along. My favourite parts where hearing Em’s philosophy on life… ‘you don’t have to change the world. Just the little bit around you’ and she certainly did that for Dex. I was sorry to say goodbye to this story and left it 2 whole days before I picked up another book just out of respect for Em…yes I’m strange I know! I really enjoyed this book, easy to read and a real page turner.

    Bring on next month 🙂ReplyCancel

  • March 23, 2011 - 9:40 am

    Elizabeth - Hi, I am writing this with tears still in my eyes. Just before I got up this morning I picked up the story starting just before Emma dies. I could not then put it down and literally sobbed my way through to the end. The top of the duvet is still soggy! I would not have persevered with this book if it was not for our own Book Club – but that is why book clubs are so wonderful. It makes you read something you may not have picked up on your own and I am a real coward about books with unhappy endings. However, this was one of those books which make me want to go straight back to the beginning and read all over again – which I will do. I agree with all the comments which have been expressed so well. I loved the picture of society over the years and the protrayal of a realistic, unperfect life. In some ways it made me feel better about my life and realise that most of us live an imperfect life in some ways. I am now in my 69th year (but still feel about 30) spend quite a lot of time looking back and wondering what if … Thank you for all the views which I have really enjoyed reading. I think this is one book which will stay with me for a long time.ReplyCancel

    • April 24, 2011 - 11:55 pm

      Kate - Hi Elizabeth – thank you so much for your thoughts about the book. I’m so pleased that you enjoyed it. There aren’t many things better than a great book that really gets under your skin and stays with you. What other books have you been reading in your book club? If you have the time, it would be lovely for you to read along here too!ReplyCancel

  • April 24, 2011 - 5:13 pm

    "room" by emma donoghue // 11.11 book group review | kate griffin photography blog // child & family portrait photographer for surrey & london - […] the year-leaping, decades-spanning romantic romp that was One Day, our book 2 selection moved quite seriously in another direction. Whilst Emma Donoghue has said […]ReplyCancel

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