This delightful book is bound to become a re-read staple for when I crave for something light and insanely readable. I’ve enjoyed it just as much second time around.
To clarify, when I say light I don’t mean that nothing sad or tragic happens in the book, because that’s certainly not the case. There are works of fiction, books and movies and so on, that are sad in a rather pleasant and satisfying way as opposed to genuinely bleak affairs. In the case of this novel, a lot of lightness comes from the fact that this warm-hearted book is frequently very funny.
It’s also a novel based on a Concept, chronicling the lives of the two main characters over the span of two decades, but always on the same date, 15 July. This annual-update style provides a strong structure as well as a sense of unpredictability, giving the reader a chance to catch up with the important events in the characters’ lives and the way they affected them emotionally. In other ways, it’s your typical will-they-won’t-they story about two people who are obviously meant to be together, but must stick with Just Friends until the immature hero wises up and realises that his perfect woman was right there under his nose the entire time. Not that there’s anything wrong with this romantic staple, especially when given a fresh spin through a novel approach.
Emma and Dexter first meet in Edinburgh on 15 July 1988, the last of their student days, with their futures wide open. Emma is an idealistic, artsy, earnest leftie from Yorkshire, both spiky and massively insecure, while handsome and confident Dexter is from a well-off family and regards the word “bourgeois” as a positive rather than something to sneer at. They have a brief hook-up before parting ways, with Dexter off on his overseas adventures and Emma struggling with the disappointments of the post-university life, which include a string of failed creative endeavours and a dead-end job at a truly terrible Tex-Mex restaurant. Emma also has a much harder time with the platonic nature of their relationship, pining for Dexter while he’s happy sowing his wild oats. But the two manage to remain good mates, even if their friendship hits rocky patches through the years.
Emma is far from perfect, with her at times strident judgemental streak, indecisiveness, lack of direction and self-confidence, and a way of passively falling into half-hearted relationships with men she doesn’t really care for. It’s pretty clear though that Dexter is the one with the most growing-up to do. His hedonistic gap year flows smoothly into a hedonistic lifestyle of drugs, cocktails and parties when he lands a job in TV presenting a late-night program. With plenty of booze and women around, who cares if half the country thinks that you’re an insufferable prick? Naturally, what comes up must eventually come down, and over the years the two friends go through the reversal of their fortunes, personally and professionally.
Nicholls has a knack for cracking dialogue, humorously observed details, and capturing the feel of the 90s Britain without resorting to the obvious cultural references too much; as a 90s kid myself I’m probably the perfect audience for the 90s nostalgia even if I didn’t actually grow up in the UK. He also has a wonderful light and comic touch describing his hapless characters fumbling around trying to figure out their lives, while the book grows progressively more moving and acquires more depth as the years go by, and the fun glibness of youth gives way to disappointments, heartaches and pragmatism of encroaching middle age. You don’t always like Emma and Dexter, but they sparkle together and their loaded friendship, with its peaks and valleys, flirting and banter, hidden yearning and unsaid things, is always endearing.
One Day takes a turn, in retrospect cleverly hidden by misdirection, that I genuinely didn’t see coming when reading the book for the first time. I suspect that not every reader appreciated it, but it struck the right note with me, and Nicholls finds a way to keep the feelgood lightness in the story even amidst sadness.