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!