I love a book with a good gimmick, and One Day has a great one: the story takes place on the same day over the course of 20 years. Each year, we check in with the two protagonists—Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley—on July 15 (which, as Dex tells Em is St. Swithin’s Day) and see how their lives and relationship are developing.
The thing with gimmicks, though, is that an author might come up with a great gimmick but not be able to execute it effectively. I’m pleased to report that David Nicholls writes a book that lives up to (and even exceeds) his gimmick. The easiest way to describe One Day is as a “literary version of When Harry Met Sally” … if Harry was a handsome TV personality with a drinking problem and Sally was a plain-looking, bookish nerd and the story went on for a few years after the happy ending. The real comparison, of course, is that Dex and Em are meant for each other (the reader knows it, Em sometimes knows it, Dex seems blissfully unaware of it) but—for one reason or another—keep missing each other because life (jobs, relationships, success) constantly gets in the way.
Seeing their friendship and lives develop over the course of the book was a true pleasure. I thought Nicholls did a brilliant job of handling the “one day” check-in each year without making it seemed forced. The story develops naturally, and we get invested in Dex and Em and their relationship … so much so that I was stunned when Nicholls pulled the rug out from under me towards the end.
Nicholl’s writing feels genuine whether he is writing from Emma or Dexter’s point of view. There are quite a few amusing scenes that had me cracking up, but Nicholls provides emotional heft as well. When reading, I found myself utterly absorbed, and I was always wondering where the next July 15 would find Dex and Em and what they would be doing. The only real quibble I had with the book is that I wish Nicholls hadn’t chosen to give Dex and Em such “glamorous” careers at various points. I didn’t think the book needed it to “goose” up the drama/comedy, but it is a minor complaint. If what I’ve written so far hasn’t convinced you to check this book out yet, how about a few excerpts?
Emma on being a writer: Sometimes, when it’s going badly, she wonders if what she believes to be a love of the written word is really just a fetish for stationery. The true writer, the born writer, will scribble words on scraps of litter, the back of a bus tickets, on the wall of a cell. Emma is lost on anything less than 120gsm.
Emma on being a writer (again): … but she was discovering once again that reading and writing were not the same – you couldn’t just soak it up then squeeze it out again. She found herself unable to think of a name for her detective, let alone a cohesive original plot, and even her pseudonym was poor: Emma T. Wilde?
Dexter caring for his baby daughter: How much longer until she can speak? A year? Eighteen months? It’s insane, an absurd design error, this refusal to master speech just when it’s needed most. They should come out talking. Not conversation, not repartee, just basic practical information. Father, I have wind. This activity centre leaves me jaded. I am colicky.
Emma thinking about her friends: What has happened to her friends? They used to be funny and fun-loving, gregarious and interesting, but far too many evenings have been spent like this with pasty, irritable hollow-eyed couples in smelly rooms, expressing wonder that baby is getting bigger with time, rather than smaller. She is tired of squealing in delight when she sees a baby crawl, as if this was a completely unexpected development, this ‘crawling’. What were they expecting, flight?
My Final Recommendation
This deliciously fun and engaging story of a relationship developing over the course of 20 years is told in a “gimmicky” fashion (we check in with the main characters on the same day throughout the book) but transcends the novelty aspect to be a heartfelt, genuine, realistic look at modern life and relationships. An engrossing, fast read that will tickle your funny bone and touch your heart. (How much did that just sound like a blurb on the back of a book jacket? Perhaps I’m turning into a “real” book reviewer!)
Note: This book is already being made into a movie starring Anne Hathaway as Emma and Jim Sturgess as Dexter.
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Whys and Wheres: I bought this book for my Kindle after seeing it recommended in Entertainment Weekly. As a sucker for a good gimmick, I had to check it out. In this case, at least, EW was right on the money.