If you’re judging it by the cover, the title, or the blurb on the back of the book jacket and are subsequently worried that One Day by David Nicholls is a terrible romance, you should calm down, because it’s not. Despite great superficial evidence to the contrary (the film adaptation is going to star Anne Hathaway, if you know what I mean), the 19-year relationship between Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley is not particularly one of romance. It is one of character discovery through perspective…with a little romance thrown in.
Each chapter of One Day is a brief visitation to the friendship between Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley, coming the same date each year, July 15th (St. Swithun’s Day), between the years of 1988 and 2007. This anniversary sees them coming together, ripping apart, losing themselves, and eventually finding themselves, in wonderful, twisted, and chillingly heartfelt ways.
When we first meet them, what we know about Emma and Dexter is that they have just graduated from college, and despite having known of each other for some time, never have spent much time together—thus, they have chosen to celebrate by getting better acquainted over drinks, and under blankets. We discover what each one of them, both young and idealistic in varying ways, want from their coming adulthood. Emma seeks to “change lives though art maybe,” while Dexter wants to look cool, and have fun, believing that “there should be a lot of fun and no more sadness than absolutely necessary.” (Despite all of the wonderful, literary things to say about David Nicholls’s book, it is a delightfully voyeuristic endeavor to see how these goals work out for Dex and Em.)
Honestly, it seems that it would be nearly impossible to like either of them at this juncture in the novel without a certain perspective on the early 20s that comes with having aged past them, that space allowing for at least a jovial understanding. While initially the characters are unlikable—self-deprecating Emma with her moral superiority, and vain Dexter with his near-sociopathic incapacity to understand another’s feelings—eventually, as they age, and as the pages of the book pass, they become real people.
In One Day, David Nicholls has beautifully created a novel surprisingly true in its revelation of character. While Nicholls is a phenomenal writer—his prose hilarious and touching—I don’t believe it is his writing specifically that has breathed life into Dexter and Emma, but rather the narrative form he has chosen for this book. Nicholls creates two parallel versions of Dexter and Emma: the way they see themselves, and the way they see each other. Between these versions, Nicholls has left space for readers to understand Dexter and Emma for themselves.
The New York Times Review of Books suggests that you take David Nicholls’s One Day with you to the pool for summer reading, I will urge you to stay in your home to read this book: chortling out loud and crying in public can be a bit embarrassing.
One Day by David Nicholls is published by Vintage Contemporaries and is the late-February selection for Books and Bars, to be held at the Aster Café on February 22, 2011. The novel can be purchased, among other places, at Magers & Quinn.