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When I went on holiday last month I was in need of a book to read. My sister wanted my copy of The Help and suggested I read One Day by David Nicholls. The author's name was unfamiliar to me until she said he had written Starter for Ten - a book I hadn't read but I had seen the film version of.
I took the book on holiday with me but never actually read it - other distractions kept me away from it and it's only now, over month since I got back, that I have actually read it.
Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew both graduate from Edinburgh University on the same day and meet on the night of their graduation. This day happens to be the 15th July 1988 - which is also St Swithin's Day. Legend claims that if it rains on St Swithin's Day, it will rain for the next 40 days but if it's dry then it will stay dry for 40 days - which is total bunkum of course.
The novel opens in Emma's student flat which sits in the shadows of Arthur's Seat and we are introduced to two people from very different backgrounds with very different outlooks on life who somehow are drawn together in a way which seems to transcend mere physical attraction.
The book then tells the story of their lives by focusing on the 15th July in each succeeding year and what is happening to them that day and also what has happened in the course of the year which has passed, covering a period of 20 years.
This isn't a book about romance however - the main theme I found in One Day is friendship - with an additional emphasis on how time is not a finite resource yet how easy it is to waste it.
The first thing that struck me about One Day was how well written it is. Now it's not something that normally strikes me in a book so early on - but Nicholls uses conversational prose brilliantly here - which belies his experience as a TV and film writer - and the book commences with some of this conversational prose.
What helps too is he has two very interesting chief protagonists in this book with Emma who is clearly smarter and better in almost every way to Dexter, coming across as sensible but extremely likeable - if a little aimless. Dexter has a lot of charm which draws the reader towards him but he is deeply flawed and Nicholls makes no attempt to conceal how this indulged young man can be incredibly selfish, hedonistic and arrogant.
The way he has structured the book is a work of genius in my opinion - there comes a stage when you feel comforted in knowing a year can result in a lot of change for Emma and Dexter and you want to know how their connection will survive and how it will develop and grow.
Furthermore Nicholls really crafts quite wonderful characterisations in his writing and while Emma and Dexter are undoubtedly the main characters in the book, Nicholls has created some other truly memorable and dare I say it, colourful, characters in the book. It's a mark of how well he writes that it's not just the chief protagonists who stayed with me after I had finished reading the book - so many of the supporting cast of characters did too.
Nicholls also captures a snapshot of Britain at a particular time, and manages to avoid becoming too political in the process. The boom in so-called "yoof" TV is perfectly satirised in the book with Dexter being the poster child for an era where it felt as if anyone with the right connections could get a TV job and furthermore didn't have to be any good at it. Nicholls neatly manages to mock the burgeoning number of TV production companies which popped up at the time through Dexter too.
Nicholls does manage to keep Dexter on just the right side of likeable, despite having some rather hateful qualities. This is crucial to the book working I feel - because the bond between someone as likeable and refreshingly down to earth as Emma and the more self absorbed and superficial Dexter is the beating heart of the tale. He keeps the chemistry between the characters completely believable too - whether that be almost heartbreaking sexual chemistry or that between two friends who have no idea why they don't seem to be connecting any more.
Nicholls' descriptive prose is as good as his conversational prose and if you know any of the places he describes you will see them as clear as day in your minds eye. He describes Edinburgh beautifully - and his description of the New Town, where I lived for a few months myself was amazingly accurate and evocative. He manages to do the same with London and I smiled at his description of Emma furniture shopping on Tottenham Court Road in the kind of shops I was visiting at the time myself.
His ability to capture the media types Dexter mixes with are excellent too, and I am pretty sure there's a rather wonderful caricature of Davina McColl in there. Nicholls seems to understand the type of people who are drawn to TV work and considers the effects of minor celebrity and how it can affect, and corrupt, those who have it.
As the book moves towards its conclusion you will either have a sense of inevitability as you realise where the story is going or you will be surprised by it. My sister told me she found the ending a surprise whereas I had felt it coming several chapters before. But the ending isn't really important in this book - what is important is the sense you get that friendship is the best thing you can have in a relationship and perhaps that resonated loudest with me because my husband was my best friend.
However after I had finished the book I felt a sense of anger over how unfair life is. The likeable, clever and genuinely talented Emma had to work hard for everything whereas the mediocre Dexter had everything handed to him on a plate. This resonated with me as I realised just how shallow our life has become since the 1980s with forces such as MTV, cosmetic surgery and the rise of the minor celebrity through vacuous magazines being responsible for this. Emma isn't a classically attractive girl whereas Dexter is described as a creature of beauty and the only conclusion you can reach from this - apart from those related to the gender gap - is Dexter uses his looks and his ability to wear clothes well as a tool to succeed over people who are clearly far more talented and deserving than him.
There is a certain - and welcome - sense of justice towards the end when Emma's talents start to shine just as Dexter is discovering you can't build a career in "yoof" TV due to the age constraints.
One Day is a book that I can heartily recommend. The writing is sublime and Nicholls is capable of making you laugh and cry, feel nostalgic, happy and heartbroken within the confines of this novel. He makes you realise that time passes by far more quickly than you think it will, with youth being truly wasted on the young who never think getting old will happen to them. His writing also acts as a stark reminder that time is precious and should not be wasted.
Anyone who has ever had a best friend will relate to this and anyone who appreciates a well crafted and beautifully written book will love One Day - and anyone who needs reminding to seize the day, should read this too.