One Day by David Nicholls
One Day is about Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, who have a one-night stand just after college graduation. Though they’re incredibly different, they become friends (just friends?) for the next 20 years. The conceit of this romance is that it tells what is happening in the life of this couple on the same day, July 15, over the course of their relationship. It stretches credibility a bit–what are the chances that so many significant events in their lives would all happen on the same date? Most of the book is a will-they-or-won’t-they. It’s When Harry Met Sally, except they slept together first.
Emma is a working-class striver with artistic ambitions. She spends most of her twenties acting on the side while waiting tables to pay bills, and gets engaged to a comedian. Eventually she becomes a teacher, then a successful writer. Dexter is from a somewhat more comfortable class, and he becomes a TV presenter, with his own show for a while, living the high life of celebrity. But he finally pisses that opportunity away with too much drink and women.
For most of their relationship it is obvious that Emma is and has always been in love with Dexter. But he’s too full of his own success, too self-satisfied, to recognize her worth and settle down with her. For most of the book I hated Dexter, and I think I was meant to. The point of view is close, but he spouts many absurd opinions that are surely not meant to be taken at face value. He’s always trying to have his cake and eat it too with Emma. He wants her as a friend and confidante, but not if he has to be seen with her in public. He wants to sleep with her, but without commitment or inconvenient attatchment on her part. The most gratifying scenes are when she stands up for herself and refuses to let him treat her so poorly. I was particularly disturbed early in the book when Emma and Dexter take a trip together “strictly as friends,” but he keeps peeking at her naked and conniving behind her back to make sure they have to share a bed. I think it’s meant to show how attracted he is to her, but really it just shows how he puts his own horniness over her expressed wishes and consent.
What’s most troubling is that there’s a sense that the real Dexter isn’t like this. There are hints of a nicer, sweeter guy underneath the persona he puts on for the world, and when that guy comes out, you can understand why Emma loves him. And that guy, the real Dexter, is totally in love with Emma: she brings his best self out. My favorite moment of real Dexter is a rambling, drunken letter he sends her from India, asking Emma to come meet him at the Taj Mahal, but which never got to its destination. If only, right? The problem seems to be that the world doesn’t see this real Dexter as his best self, but as laughable, while his fake TV persona gets adulation and must treat Emma with scorn. Or at least he thinks that. So he feels the need to bury that vulnerable, shameful, loveable guy.
The strength of the book is the first half, full of the tension of whether or not Emma and Dexter finally get together. The novel takes a maudlin, sad sack turn at the end, which is an attempt to make the whole story more poignant. It mostly just turns a witty, articulate, very British book into a Nicolaus Sparks novel. Which was probably necessary if David Nicholls wanted a movie deal.
This book was adapted into a movie with Anne Hathaway. I have the DVD on hold at the library, and I’ll write about it here when I finally get it.