I saw the cinematic rendition of One Day, starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess (the latter of Across the Universe fame), last week and thought it was…well, kind of bizarre. I really didn’t know what, exactly, to make of it. I’d airily told my pop-culture-deficient little brother that the story was “When Harry Met Sally meets Nick Hornby,” but it wasn’t, really (and not just because the movie was nowhere near as good as Nora Ephron’s 1989 best-friends-fall-in-love cinematic classic—yes, classic—and even the novel itself really can’t compare to, say, High Fidelity or How to Be Good). And yet, the movie must have done something right, because it made me all the more eager to pick up the novel, published last year to if not unabashed literary acclaim then certainly to sky-high sales. (It’s the new millennium’s Bridget Jones’ Diary.) Reviews have described One Day as the ultimate beach read for people who think they’re above Nora Roberts and Dean Koontz, but I don’t think that gives it enough credit. I wouldn’t call the book brilliant by any stretch, but it’s certainly good, and not just in the patronizing better-than-the-schlock-you-could-be-reading sense. And it’s also so very British, in the best possible way. By which I mean to say, I really really hope they don’t eventually release a new, updated “Americanized” version like they did with Bridget Jones’ Diary, when they had the titular character worry about her weight in pounds, not stone.
The premise of One Day is this, and it works a lot better on the page than it does on screen: It’s July 15th, which most Britons would know as St. Swithin’s Day, 1988, and Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew have just graduated from the University of Edinburgh. She’s a “double first” in English and History and cares quite deeply about nuclear disarmament, the Sandinistas and her ability to change the world; he’s a “low third” in Anthropology and really just cares about being cool, in the way all twenty-three-year-olds for whom life comes effortlessly seem to do the world over. Emma has had a longstanding crush on Dexter, while he’s always been intrigued by her but, by his own admission, “pretty much fancies anyone.” (He’s a womanizer, in American.) The two spend the night after graduation together and strike up a unique friendship that is chronicled over the years by checking in with the protagonists every July 15th until 2007. Some years are a lot more interesting than others, and some of the big events that define the narrative happen “off the page,” so to speak, but all told, the device works very well.
Based on the reactions I’ve read, the book is one of those love-it-or-hate-it tales. Those who like it really like it and will defend it to the death, and those who don’t aren’t content with a low-key “it wasn’t my cup of tea” disparagement—they’ve got to emphasize how the main characters’ she’s-brainy-and-he’s-boorish stereotypes made them want to vomit all over every page. And let’s be honest, the will-they-or-won’t-they question is never really a question, and the ending isn’t quite as shocking as one might expect, because you sort of see it coming. But all that aside, what really made me enjoy the book was how well it captured not just every “cultural epoch” (late eighties, early nineties, turn of the millennium, et cetera) but every stage of life. Granted, I’ve only made it to my late twenties thus far, and hope like hell that I’ll be able to confirm or deny the author’s characterizations of the later years, but I will say that Nicholls does seem to have his hand fully on the pulse of upwardly-mobile Western youth. Dexter comes from a wealthy family and Emma has working-class Yorkshire roots, but as highly-educated early-twenty-somethings they both have to decide, in equal measure, what it is they’re going to do after being coddled at “university,” and the confusion, ambivalence, despair and world-weariness they experience and exhibit are universal enough to strike a real chord with Nicholls’ target audience. The novel is undoubtedly a nostalgia piece, what with all the quarterlife-crisis-mongering and nineties references, but as soon as you give into it, the book wins you over. (I even enjoyed the part where “Dex” and “Em” argue over the invasion of Iraq. Was that really eight years ago?)
Perhaps most importantly, though, the novel succeeds in making the relationship between what seem like two polar opposites believable. You never question why these two are friends, and a big reason for this is, of course, the often pitch-perfect dialogue, which mimics (perhaps to an uncomfortable extent) so much of my own persiflage with the opposite sex that I probably once thought was uniquely clever. Through all the ups and downs of the relationship, you always “get it”; you never doubt their connection. And since I’m much more of an Emma than a Dexter, the fact that the male half of the pair remains consistently appealing, no matter how many times he turns up his nose at Wuthering Heights, means a lot. Or perhaps I really just wasn’t able to separate the Dexter on the page from Jim Sturgess. Either way, the book’s worth reading, and you probably won’t be able to put it down.
Read an excerpt here.