Review: One Day, by David Nicholls

"One Day" by David Nicholls - on sale in the window at the School of Life shop on Marchmont Street

It would be easy, but unfair, to say the plot of this terrific guilty pleasure of a novel is a bit “Great Gatsby meets Groundhog Day”.  The book opens with our lead characters, Dexter and Emma, having your basic awkward light banter in bed, in the small hours of their last day at university:  June 15, 1988.   The book then goes on to check in with each of them on successive June 15ths in the years ahead.  Time moves forward, but their boats beat back ceaselessly into…well, you know.

On some of our annual visits, we get the sense that Dex and Em are still close friends; some years, they’re clearly drifting apart.  No reference is made to any sort of anniversary – we could be dropping in on them any day of the year – but the mechanism of having these check-ins happen exactly a year apart gives us the effect of time-lapse photography in book form.  As such, we witness life just… happening, with all the opportunity and lack of conscious choice that implies.  Jobs are taken, houses are bought, unintended career arcs take shape, as they each move through their 30s and beyond.  Romantically, the decades following their first meeting always contain echoes of the pitch that was struck that first night, and they wonder – sometimes achingly, sometimes idly – whether the pureness of that note will ever be equaled by anyone else.  Or, indeed, ever again by the person who sounded it first, but who now seems to have grown up into someone different, and somehow further away. 

The will-they-or-won’t-they drama is at once both central to the story and largely left in the background.  Like the trunk of a Christmas tree, the entire enterprise wouldn’t exist without it, and yet the focus of the day-to-day is on the branches and shiny bits that give the thing a form.   The shiny bits come courtesy of Nicholls’ outstanding eye for the telling, nostalgia-sparking detail.  Without that, and taken just for its plot, One Day might not be anything special.  With it, we get to know these characters intimately, at the same time as we are reminded of ourselves at that age, cringingly but fondly, via the scenes he conjures with perfect nuance – what we wore, what we felt, what we worried about, what we hoped for.

So as we see Em and Dex navigate their twenties, we remember the simple joy of wild nights out or meeting someone new.  We’re also forced to relive the times when we thought we were being subtle, or principled, and then realize years later were perhaps just a bit foolish.  At one point, Dex invites-but-doesn’t-invite Em to a party after a dinner.  He mentions what a great party he got invited to, then trails off with “you can come, if you want”.  And then, after the main courses, “I was just thinking, that party’s pretty far away… you’d have to take two or three buses to get home, and you probably have to get up early tomorrow.  But you should still come…if you want.”

Around the same time (this must be the mid-nineties) we hear in passing Emma’s statement that she would never buy a mobile phone, because clearly the only people who would buy a mobile phone are twits who want everyone to know how important they are.  It still amazes me that something that was said so with such vehemence and frequency back then could have been…not just so wrong, but so forgotten about today.  And if you forgot about that – which you probably heard expressed by somebody or other maybe once a week, for a couple years there – what else might you have forgotten about what it was like to be you, at twenty-four?   You could go back and read your journals (remember writing them, on paper, in a coffeeshop?) – or just read this book.

It’s no surprise that a film is in the works, and it will no doubt be very sweet, and quite possibly a big hit.  It will be the kind of film that has as excellent soundtrack.  Twenty years ago, it would have been the kind of compilation album you’d make a special trip to the music store (!) to buy (!!), since it was the only way to get so many of your favourite songs from different bands at once.  (Other than spending the hours it took to make a mix tape – the stacks of CDs and records, the light touch with the Pause button.) And – despite my love for Em and Dex, and my enjoying spending a few weeks with them, watching their lives, honestly wondering what would happen – it’s that reminder of what a compilation album was that makes me most happy to have read the book.  It puts you back in your twenty-year-old head, but in a fonder and more forgiving way than any regretful looks back you might have cast at your younger self since then.  It reminds you of the good and bad of being young, and makes you happy to have had the experience, and glad to have gotten through it.

When you’re young, you wonder more than you know, and after the cumulative effects of several years of that, you know more than you wonder.  The latter is a better way to go being about a grownup, but it is good to remember you’re still, underneath all the experience, the same person who used to spend days and years wondering.  And it is an achingly good treat to be reminded of the feeling of wondering – even in your thirties or forties – and imagining that maybe the best could still be yet to come.

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