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One Day is one of those books that just suddenly seems to be everywhere! I’d already read a couple of David Nicholls’ books including Starter for Ten and The Understudy, so I picked this up with middling expectations. His previous novels had been interesting and fairly witty, with a strength in characterisation, but nothing that especially blew me away. This book, however, was completely different, and I fell for it as soon as I read it. I recommended it to so many friends and family members that I almost feel responsible for its success – I’ve lent my copy out to four or five people and bought it as gifts for others.
The concept could at first seem quite awkward and contrived. The story follows two people, Dexter and Emma, during twenty years of their lives. However, we visit them on just one specific day in each year – St Swithin’s Day. At first I thought this would end up requiring some ridiculous coincidences whereby they would always end up seeing each other on St Swithin’s Day, and somehow something interesting and plot advancing would just happen to occur on that day each year. However, it wasn’t really like that. Flashbacks were used regularly to fill the reader in on what had happened throughout the rest of the year, and some years the story would follow Emma and Dexter separately, just kind of checking up on them and where they were at in their lives just then. I thought this was very skilfully done, and really saved the novel from being a bit gimmicky and obvious.
As with Nicholls’ other novels, the characterisation was excellent. Being able to see the characters develop over twenty years meant that you got to know and understand them really well. Both Emma and Dexter developed and changed a great deal from start to finish, and the ways they acted and thought were definitely believable. Emma is the kind of girl that’s really easy to identify with – she’s sarcastic and funny, but physically quite average and a real underachiever. She feels simultaneously inferior to Dexter, because he has looks and confidence and money, and also superior to him because she’s a lot smarter than him. I definitely looked back at some of the people I had met in my life and recognised that I had struggled with similar feelings towards more popular, outgoing people than myself.
Dexter, meanwhile, is quite privileged, verging on spoiled. He’s a far cry from your usual male lead in that I don’t think he’s especially fanciable; we really do see him at some low points in his life and it’s very ‘warts and all.’ He goes on quite a different journey to Emma and I’d say he was the one who is the most different by the end of the book.
The best thing about both characters is that they are so flawed. There is no idealism or perfection or aspirational role model; the are both absolutely normal human beings who make bad choices and have bad things happen to them and think and do mean, horrible things at times.
Whilst being primarily about a relationship, this book also paints a remarkably accurate picture of the time period in which it is set. The politics and social struggles and popular culture of the nineties are discussed and analysed in such an interesting, absorbing, readable way and whilst the nineties are a bit hazy for me (er… I wasn’t on drugs or anything, I was just young - I turned 14 in the year 2000) I definitely remembered some of the television programmes and presenters that Nicholls parodies. It’s amazing how dated some of it seems just 11 years after the end of the nineties!
Obviously there is a lot of ‘will they won’t they’ about the storyline, as the two of them manage to remain friends for so long despite their ups and downs. Sometimes I desperately wanted them to get together, and I couldn’t understand why they were being so stupid with each other! Then there were other times when I thought they were just completely unsuited to each other and they would never be able to stop fighting long enough to fall in love.
Although there’s a romantic thread through the story, I don’t think it can be easily classed as a romantic novel or a chick lit. Neither would I class it, though, as a literary novel – this isn’t winning the Booker prize any time soon. I would possibly class it as a zeitgeist novel or a social novel, just because it’s about society in general as much as Dexter and Emma. Also, Dexter and Emma are often used to represent different sides of much bigger issues – Dexter’s right wing politics versus Emma’s left, for example, or Emma’s working class roots versus Dexter’s moneyed background.
I would say that this book would appeal just as much to men as to women. My husband read and loved it, as did a couple of male friends and my friend’s boyfriend. I can see why some men might dismiss it as chick lit, but it really isn’t. In fact, I think one of the reasons this book has been so successful is its appeal to both genders. I can also see why very literary people might find this a bit fluffy, and it is a very easy read, but you can definitely get a lot more out of it that your average chick lit book. (I seem to say this in every review that I write, but I’m honestly not criticising chick lit here, I read widely and I have plenty of Sophie Kinsella and Jane Fallon on my shelves!)
I was pretty much absorbed completely in this book when I read it. It’s wonderful! There were times when I laughed til I cried, and other times that I cried til I ran out of tissues. I read it in a couple of days and I’ve read it several times since. It’s incredibly readable and whilst it appeals to those who are a similar age to Dexter and Emma, I’m a 25 year old graduate and I felt that I face a lot of the issues that they faced when they left university. Nicholl’s prose is readable, accurate and insightful, and he knows when to crack a joke and when to bring a tear to your eye. Often these can both happen within a couple of lines of each other! Also the dialogue between Emma and Dexter is incredibly believable – there is nothing stilted or contrived about it.
This is a beautiful, funny captivating, sharp, insightful novel and I recommend it whole heartedly.
Available from £3 online, and you can barely walk into a book shop without seeing it. I rarely see it in charity shops – I think people lend it out or hang on to it – so online’s probably your cheapest option.