by 448 pages, Hodder
Review by Pat Black
I was curious about this one. It’s a big commercial success, but word on how good it was came through to me from various, diverse quarters. It was a wee sign.
David Nicholls had previously authored Starter For Ten, a British 1980s-based university days comedy. I didn’t fancy it, or its movie adaptation. It appeared to skirt Richard Curtis territory, which is a horrific place for an artist to be if they are anyone but Richard Curtis.
OneDay is high-concept, looking at one day in the lives of two people who meet on the day of their university graduation, July 15th, 1988. It then examines both their lives on that single day for the next 20 years. It’s a very simple, very user-friendly idea. “Where were you when..?” We could all play that game.
Our two protagonists are Emma and Dexter. They share a bed that night, and have been amorous, but haven’t had sex. Emma is bookish and from Yorkshire, while Dexter is a home counties boy from a monied family. Emma has taken a first, while Dexter squeezes in a Desmond (2:2), having preferred to pursue his education among Edinburgh University’s female population.
Against the odds, Em and Dex keep up contact with each other. Emma’s academic success deflates with an audible farting sound as she takes up employment in a horrific Mexican theme restaurant, while privileged Dexter’s progress moves on rails, as he first goes “travelling”, pretending he is a photographer and then falling into TV work as a minor celebrity on a laddish post-pub TV show.
All along, Em and Dex’s lives are intertwined. They are friends at first, graduating onto taking a holiday together and then meeting up at various points as the years go by. They don’t sleep together initially, inhabiting that murky and sometimes mendacious area of “close friends of the opposite sex”, where they pretend they don’t fancy each other when they clearly do. Dex’s fame and voracious appetite for women provides a barrier at first, as does Emma’s working cul-de-sac in the Mexican hellhole. Partners come and go for both, and they experience ups and downs in their personal and professional lives. Sometimes, they hate each other. But all along, only the readers seem to realise that these two were made for each other.
There were so many ways this could have gone wrong. First of all, “will-they won’t-they?” can get a bit tiresome. Many a good television series has been wrecked by sexual tension that has been stretched out too long, or consummated too soon. “Oh for god’s sake, why don’t they just do it?” or “Oh for god’s sake, why don’t they get over it?” are usually the questions you ask of these storylines.
But Nicholls keeps his pieces moving well. In Dexter’s charming oaf, and in Emma’s ambitious but ingenuous northern naïf, there are just enough flaws and strengths for us to identify with. Basically they’re a likeable pair. Dexter’s initially glamorous, affluent lifestyle is slowly brought down to absolutely crushing lows. Meanwhile, Emma gains quiet successes in among the beatings life hands her. In one of the book’s most sparkling moments, after she becomes a teacher, Emma presides over a school production of Oliver! which provides more joy and inspiration than any TV success the increasingly dissolute Dexter can achieve.
The concept was well-handled, too. Moving from 1988 to 2008, it would have been so easy for Nicholls to layer in cultural and historical references by the dozen. But he is shrewd enough to keep the references vague, only dropping in one or two here and there. It cuts nostalgia – a fantastic trick, considering the concept hinges on a notion of days gone by.
References to the passing years are not plastered on. Labour’s election victory of 1997 and that party’s subsequent squandering of electoral goodwill thanks to the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan are possibly the most heavy-handed “touchstone” moments. One or two bands are named, but that’s about it. One chapter - 1995 of course – is called “Cigarettes and Alcohol”, but the only Britpop act name-dropped is actually Shed Seven. Likewise, there are no references to the death of Princess Diana, or the Twin Towers – a brave and wise decision, as it would have been so easy to tweak people’s memories and sympathies. This is about two individuals and their journey through time; there’s very little garnish required. I’m not sure I would have been able to resist cramming in a history lesson or a musical sneer-fest somewhere. It means that although the novel is fixed to particular times and places, it is curiously timeless. Nicholls’ restraint serves him well.
The book is funny, too. Emma and Dexter’s Rhett-and-Scarlett banter is always a delight, and you are always rooting for the star pairing to get together. There are superb set-pieces - highlights include a Greek holiday, a disastrous dinner-date with a coke-addled Dexter, a deflating job interview and a cringingly awful parlour game which ensured I will forever remember the phrase: “Where’s Moriarty?”
There are some just deserts dished out to villainous types in this book, too – not comic book sock-on-the-jaw come-uppances, but the kind of outcome that would make even the most balanced of us think: “Yep. You know, you kind of had that coming.” We’re all subject to the old slings and arrows, and one or two characters in One Day do end up on the wrong side of terrible luck - but sometimes our lives do balance out as an aggregate of our actions. Schadenfreude is an ugly emotion, but an understandable one.
The book’s main success is in the way it almost unnervingly plots key moments in people’s lives in such a way that you felt you were there, or involved, in some way. The direct hits come in thick and fast like taking a pummelling in the boxing ring:
Wallop! – The sense that you missed chances in life, whether that’s in relationships or in jobs or simply having been lazy, and always wondering what might have happened had you taken one fork in the road over another.
Thwack! – The idea that people drift into make-do relationships with partners who they do not truly love. This includes one soul-freezing moment where one of our protagonists realises they are building a life with the wrong person, mortgage and all.
Oof! – Your partner’s parents disapprove of you to the point of outright hostility, judging everything you do through a prism of raw, undiluted snobbery, no matter how successful you are.
Booft! - You realise that no matter what you do, no matter what you provide, no matter what effort you make, you are always going to live in the shadow of another person. You look pretty tall but your heels are high.
Knockout! – Weddings, for single people, become skin-crawling ordeals whereby everyone else becomes almost pornographically interested in your life and status, measured against their own marital/breeding success.
(*Incidentally, if you’re single and reading this, here’s a tip on how to deflect the “How’s your love life? You seeing anyone?” chat: turn it back on the smugsters. “Ah, but enough about me. How’s your love life, then? Twenty years married, eh? Still shagging? You sure? How often? Once a week? Once every fortnight..? Gasp! Once a month?”*)
There are an awful lot more of these zinging, striking moments in this book, but that’s not to do down its light-heartedness and humour, even when the characters are at their lowest ebb. It’s like the best movie Richard Curtis never made. If you’re wondering, I mean that as a compliment. I shouldn’t like Richard Curtis, but I can’t help it – the charming bugger.
Another great truth One Day points out is that, often, our lives can indeed boil down to single, flashbulb moments. You might make a lifelong connection with people over the course of a single day, or even a single afternoon. That doesn’t have to be a romantic entanglement – just a face, a kindness, or an injustice, is enough to imprint these things on our consciousness for as long as we live. We’ve all got such moments stored in our minds, and One Day looks at these in tender and sometimes painful detail. They may well be the one-shot experiences we think about in our very last moments, if we have time enough.
It’s not a perfect book. Occasionally we wander into Novel Swamp, and we remain there, bleating miserably, until Farmer Charmer can come and rescue us on his faithful tractor Verisimilitude. For example, Dexter’s mother is a former 1960s society beauty and good-time gal… Sigh. Yes. Of course she is. Would we be being manipulated, here? You know exactly, precisely how her involvement in this story is going to end, long before it does. “Oh do me a favour!”
And there are two or three beats which smack of EastEnders-style cliffhangers. That’s a shame, as the rest of the book studiously avoids these, preferring to leave big moments like break-ups and deaths off-the-page, in between the magical date of July 15th.
But these are minor quibbles. Nicholls’ charm is insuperable, and this is a wonderful book.