The Short Version: Spanning nearly twenty years, the story of Dex and Emma starts with the day after their graduation from university and moves inexorably forward to the ‘present’ – spanning love, friendship, anger, resentment, fame, failure, and everything else we experience in life.
The Review: So we’ll start this one with a bit of a confession… in that I saw the movie first. I know, I know – terrible. And yes, it’s also a shame that I didn’t read the book first. (buh dum tsh) But, thanks to the efforts of one Ms. Leticia Frazao to keep me honest, I received a copy of the book to be opened immediately as soon as possible after seeing the movie. Which, as it turned out, was about a half hour after I left the movie theater, give or take. But anyway.
So considering the movie left me a little cold, I didn’t have the highest of hopes for the book. I had heard good things – this was everyone’s summer read last year (the rom-com kin to The Help) and the concept is fascinating: dropping into the lives of two people on the same day every year. And as it turns out, the book handles it pretty well. There’s a relative effort to make sure that the day is an ordinary day – and for this, I was immediately grateful. My god, nothing more contrived than “oh, another amazing thing happened on this day one year later!”
I’m not sure I buy the finale though. I mean, it makes the “one day” suddenly more significant… but I sort of preferred the significance as being the first day they spent together, then revisiting that day every year. I didn’t need the tear-jerker ending (although, I’ll admit, I did tear up even after seeing the movie and knowing what was coming) – and I think it would’ve been a stronger and more interesting choice to not show us the event but rather the immediate aftermath or something like that. Have the event on July 1 or something and show us two weeks later. OR make the first day a random day at school instead of the first time they really spent a day together – that sort of sychronicity pulled me out of it a bit.
Anyway. The characters are human and realistic enough that I enjoyed spending time in their heads – they both have problems, they’re both flawed, but they’re also interesting enough that we want them to stay friends and to stay in each other’s lives. We never quite root for them to get together – but we root for them the way we root for our own friends, even after they’ve made idiotic mistakes.
The biggest success of the book (especially over the movie) was the internal thoughts of both characters – allowing us to hear both sides of a story, with Nicholls moving pretty seamlessly between third-person-omniscient and third-person-specific. We’ll see Dex and Em somewhere, then it’s Em’s point of view, then back to the scene, then into Dex’s head, and so on. Well done.
Sometimes Nicholls is a little glib about things – a little too heavy with the drama. The love affair is the stuff that’s genetically disposed to making your heart sing… but even though I was happy to see the evolution of their friend/relationship take a very realistic path, I sometimes felt like Nicholls was trying too hard. This sort of book – ‘high’ conceit, ‘low’ form – needs to seem effortless in order to soar… and this book doesn’t quite make it above tree-level, as it were. It’s everything you need in a beach read – and it reads blissfully quickly on top of that – but it only occasionally stakes a claim to anything greater than that. When it does, there’s a lot of interesting promise – cocaine hasn’t looked so unattractive in literature in a long time (ed. digression – say what you will, Ellis and McInerney make coke seem downright glamorous) and there’s actually quite a lot of good stuff said about the way men and women act in real life – but it just wasn’t anything spectacular most of the time. Just good.
Rating: 4 out of 5. It’s a damn good beach read and (for me) on par with Helen Fielding in terms of chick lit guys can get into. I mean, Dex gets laid a lot and he’s the sort of scamp you can’t help but like (yes, I called him a scamp). Em seems like the kind of girl I’d want to date. It’s all a good combination, there’s no doubt – it just isn’t anything more than a really great beach read. Oh and skip the movie. For serious. Read the book instead. I know I always say that… but in this case, it’s rather important that you don’t see the movie (much as I love Ms. Hathaway).
One Day, by David Nicholls
Vintage Contemporaries, paperback, published 2009