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.
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.