Anyone remember that old tune by Talking Heads — the one that’s come to exemplify life for the suburban middle class? In “Once In A Lifetime,” the singer laments the passage of time and wonders how he’s come to wind up where he has — and in what state. “And you may ask yourself, what is that beautiful house?” he ponders. “And you may ask yourself, where does that highway lead to? And you may ask yourself, am I right, am I wrong?
“You may say to yourself, my God, what have I done?”
David Nicholls’ One Day, a novel told over a twenty-year period, seems to exemplify everything represented by that tune: the turns and changes that bring us up from the ambitious, wild-eyed and free-spirited twenty-somethings we once were to the pragmatic, loyal and tightly-bound adults we become. The story of Dexter and Emma, who officially “meet” on the night of their college graduation, One Day follows them through relationships, vacations, career changes, grief, highs and lows of every variety — and each chapter represents another year gone as we catch up with Dex and Em each July 15.
On the surface, there isn’t much about the book’s premise that doesn’t appeal to me. It’s set in London, first and foremost, and we all know I am a wee bit obsessed with the UK. Next up? Well, it’s a love story — and one of my favorite kinds: where friendship segues to much, much more, and we get the opportunity, as readers, to grow up with the characters we come to know so well.
But something about the novel left me disinterested and unsatisfied, and I struggled to become engrossed in the plot. The novel opens in 1988 in Edinburgh, where Dexter and Emma have woken from a hazy night together just as they’ve graduated from university. While I could identify with their philosophical musings fueled by youth, passion and the sublime energy that can only accompany being newly out in the “real world,” I could already feel a heady dislike for Dexter — haughty bordering on arrogant; disheveled; almost toying with Emma. But in turn, I liked Emma — Em with all her ambition; her nervousness about the future; her clear and unrequited love for Dex.
One Day certainly isn’t a conventional love story, and rarely did the plot go where I expected it would. The hardest part, for me, was simply opening the book day after day and not getting mired down in all the depressing stuff that’s going on. From the start, both Emma and Dexter seem to be squandering their talents — Emily because she’s afraid to try; Dexter because he’s too busy battling substance abuse problems. Emma becomes a teacher, then a writer; Dex is a television personality who tries to sober up, focusing more on getting drunk than building an empire. And, well . . . it was boring, honestly. For the first 200 pages or so, I was bored. Everything was just sad, and everyone was sad. I just wasn’t into it; I nearly gave up.
I didn’t, though. My literary conscience tugged on my sleeve, whispering, “This is your book. You should be loving this book! You should love these characters!” And the novel did improve as Emma and Dexter matured — and their relationship matured. Life began to move forward as they tried a little harder, learned more, experienced more . . . though many times, that took them in opposite directions. The pair absolutely sparkled when they were together, where the banter was fluent and funny — and the scenes in which they were fighting, or apart, just didn’t ring as exciting or true to life.
Nicholls is a very, very funny writer, evident especially in his novel Starter For Ten. But where that story focuses on the humorous mishaps of one man’s college experience, One Day is darker, more serious and, frankly, a little bit of a downer. And as I approached the close of the book? Well, let’s just say I was ready to hurl my copy across the room.
The novel has already gained huge popularity in the UK and is being made into a film starring Anne Hathaway (“The Princess Diaries,” “Becoming Jane”) and Jim Sturgess (“Across The Universe,” “21”). It’s funny because other reviewers have enjoyed it — and I can definitely see where they’re coming from. I can see why the book would appeal to many people, but for me? Well, I failed to be moved by the couple’s blindness to one another — and grew tired of reading about more unhappy choices and bitter affairs. You can’t argue that Nicholls is a master of dialogue and has crafted a very different love story, but I couldn’t absorb it the way I wanted to.
Having said that, I’ll admit the book was memorable — and I doubt I’ll soon forget it. I just didn’t like it very much. For those who grew up in the ’80s, enjoy British fiction (and humor) or contemporary love stories, One Day might be worth checking out. And I’m looking forward to the film.
3 out of 5!
ISBN: 0307474712 ♥ Purchase from Amazon ♥ Author Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg
21 thoughts on “Book review: ‘One Day’ by David Nicholls”
I’ve been curious about this one, in part because of all the love it seems to be getting. It is always disappointing though, when you pick up a book that seems to be your literary soulmate in every which way, only to find the reading experience doesn’t quite hold up. One of the worst things we gambling readers can have happen to us!
Meg what an insightful review, I loved this book and my husband hated it: he was bored and deeply disliked Dexter. Instead I couldn’t put this down and after it stayed with me for a few days
Great review, Meg! I was going to look for this book when I’m in England next week. But I’m not sure…. On the other hand, I fulfill your criteria for liking it: I did grow up in the 80s and I do like British humor. What shall I do?
Sorry you didn’t enjoy this one, I expected you to as well! I’m still going to pick it up, but your review has tempered my expectations.
I just won a copy of this, so I guess I’ll cross my fingers that I like it better than you did.
You have made some very valid points for your dislike of the book and I applaud you for going against the grain, and to voice your opinion, even when it isn’t popular opinion. We all need honesty in our reviews.
That said, I loved the book. It tugged me, it tormented me, and it made me cry, become frustrated and want to scream. What struck me most is its realism. You want to tell them to shut up and grow up, but the sad part is many people are just like Em and Dex. I promise you this isn’t a dig at your younger-than-me age, but I really think if you read this again in 10 years, you will like it and appreciate it more. From the years of 27 to my now 37, soooo much emotionally has happened to me, stuff I couldn’t imagine, stuff just like what Em and Dex go through. Twenty-five-year-old me would give the same review as you. But 37-year-old me applauds Mr. Nicholls for his true representation of people trying to find their way in life and love, when they “plan” they had doesn’t quite come together, and they have to improvise.
Just like life, this book is painful, sometimes boring, sometimes exciting — but to me, it is always truthful. And that’s all we can ask, really!
I’m 42 and I really did not like this book. I wanted to like it but I found the characters unlikeable and the story ended was utterly depressing. I also didn’t find the dynamics of the main characters relationships believable.
i briefly skimmed your review and by briefly, i mean i read the first few paragraphs and the last one. i have this book sitting on my shelf so i didn’t want your review to affect my opinion of it, but i’ll have to come back and read your review after i finish it. sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy it as much as you thought you would. that’s always a bummer.
It’s too bad this didn’t live up to it’s promise.
Great and fair review, Meg! I’ve seen this one receive a lot of love but I have never read the author. I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t enjoy it as much as you hoped to. But, because I grew up in the 80’s, love everything British and contemporary love stories, I think I might give it a try!
I just finished “One Day” and, although I don’t think I was quite as disappointed as you, Meg, this is far from my favorite book. I didn’t care for Dexter at all, and Emma bothered me frequently. I found most of the characters to be rather trying & irritating and thought the book was too long. More often than not it was sad & depressing instead of funny.
I really appreciated your honest review!
Well, it sounds like there really is a lot to love about this book. And I’m sorry that it didn’t turn out that you loved the book. That is always so disappointing when a book has everything you could hope for but something about it is off. The movie sounds interesting – I have to say I adore Anne Hathaway. I’m on the fence about whether or not I would like this one. I guess I’ll never know unless I try!
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I saw, via Twitter, that you didn’t like the book so I waited until I finished it to read your review.
I see your points. I guess I enjoyed it because I felt like Emma is me. I’m in that stage of figuring out what I want to do so this book resonated with me on that level.
I finished this book last night, and totally agree on the wanting to hurl the book across the room thing. Ack! Nicholls, why would you do such a thing?! I’m still not sure if I liked it, but I’ve started my review of it, so I should probably make up my mind soon!
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Ahm, I think her name was Emma not Emily.. I loved the book until the end, I’m not gonna say what happens there in case someone hasn’t read it, but that was ludicrous. I have never read a book that I loved until the last maybe 20 pages. What a disappointment. He took a funny, warm, real story, and just had to make it fake-ly dramatic. Blah.
So it is, Monica — so it is! Thanks for pointing out the Emily/Emma dilemma; not sure why I made that mistake!
And I agree: pretty disappointing. I’ve had other books I’ve loved up until the end, then wanted to chuck against the wall.
Meg – Thanks for the review f this book. I haven’t read it but my agent was raving about it (and she knows what she’s doing!) and it’s been a huge hit.
Sadly, I know the ending and don’t think I can bear to read it now. However, I’d say that it partly because of the ending, that It might have had such a huge impact in the UK (as well as it being a brilliantly written book, so I hear.)
It has been a huge hit, Phillipa, but it wasn’t a book for me.
Nicholls is a talented writer and I absolutely adored Starter For Ten, as I mentioned — but I didn’t find Emma and Dexter to be likable characters.
Hope you get a chance to read it and that you enjoy it!
Despite the mixed reviews, I’m going to read this one. Thanks for tempering my expectations from the start, Meg! Often we have similar taste when it comes to bookish things, so I simply cannot read this one now!
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