Filed under: Book Reviews, Commercial Fiction | Tags: book review, books, david nicholls, literature, one day, writing gimmicks
If David Nicholls’s One Day were written by a woman it would have been published with a soft-focus pastel cover, billed as the romantic entanglements between two friends, Emma and Dex. Because it’s by a man, it gets this kind of literary novel-ish treatment, and heavy focus on the “one day” concept. (Each chapter focuses on a July 15th, the day that Em and Dex first hook up.)
Not that I ever seek escapism, but I saw the film adaptation of Nicholls’s Starter for Ten, and assumed that his latest book would be as Adorable and easy to read as that film. Nicholls seems to write only for the movies, though, and while One Day was technically an easy read, I had a harder time getting through it than any book in recent memory apart from maybe Matthew Lewis’s The Monk.
Emma and Dexter meet when they graduate from university, and after a beer-fueled hook-up go on, against all odds, to become friends. Dexter comes from a wealthy family and wants “to live life in such a way that if a photograph were taken at random, it would be a cool photograph”, and Emma, who has some higher aspirations, has “a reassuring shiver of dislike for him.” I usually roll my eyes when people say they disliked a book because the characters were “unsympathetic,” but in this case…god, were Nicholls’s characters unsympathetic. Under a more skillful writer Emma and Dexter might have taken on some life, but Nicholls writes an episodic book that seems more geared to movie cameras than readers. I read this book in a day not because it was so good, but because it was so terrible that I wanted to delete it from my kindle and forget that I had ever blown my time and money to read an unclever book that tries so, so hard to be clever.
After graduating university Dexter does some traveling while Emma struggles to “make a difference” through community theater and finally ends up with a stable job at a Mexican restaurant which she keeps a couple years longer than intended before retraining to be a teacher. (Note: if you are a Peace Corps volunteer starting to think about What To Do with the rest of your life, there are few things more painful than reading about a character who shares your high ideals and spends years working a terrible restaurant job.) Dexter lucks into some work in television, eventually ending up as a presenter.
I don’t have the energy to go through the ups and downs of Emma and Dexter’s relationship, and let’s be honest: it’s not that interesting anyway. Emma gets a better job, one that she loves, and eventually starts writing; Dexter gets a string of attractive girlfriends, is mean to Emma, does a lot of drugs, and appears to be an alcoholic.
If anything, the center of this book is not the characters so much as it is the gimmick the characters are built around. The action of the book only takes place on one day (July 15th) of each year for about twenty years; but something that could have added interest to the narrative structure is, in Nicholls’s hands, nothing but…well, a gimmick. He makes a cheap effort to add interest to the book via this narrative structure, but because of the extensive flashbacks and catch-up in each chapter, you’re reading about the whole year despite the date labeling the chapter. The attractive thing to me about having this sort of structure to a novel is that is introduces the possibility that vast stretches of the characters’ lives will remain unknown to us, the readers, that some mystery will remain to their lives. But because Nicholls states every thought and feeling of his characters, points to every reference they make so the reader doesn’t miss out on anything, there is no mystery to One Day, just my increasing frustration with the innumerable ways Nicholls tries to trick the reader into caring about Emma and Dexter.
Throughout the novel Dexter and Emma, or other characters, do this “Dex and Em, Em and Dex” bit, as if Nicholls believes that by having them say it often enough the reader will become as attached to their relationship as they are.
‘We’re quite a pair, aren’t we? Dex and Em –’
‘Em and Dex. Like Rogers and Astaire –’
‘Burton and Taylor –’
‘Mary and Joseph –’
What Nicholls doesn’t appear to realize is that listing a string of other great partnerships doesn’t increase the value of the one he’s created between Emma and Dexter. The novel is predictable, the characters are flat precisely because Nicholls reveals too much of their lives and their thoughts, and the book’s ending is as maudlin as the reviewers claim. The book may well make a better film than it does a book; as long as the filmmakers stay away from voice overs, there will be more unknowns to the characters and the story, and One Day can only benefit from that.