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When I picked up One Day by David Nicholls on Monday morning I was anticipating an enjoyable reading experience.  I’d seen it praised all over the blogosphere but hadn’t read any of the reviews too closely for fear of spoilers.  Well, I did enjoy it but I didn’t except to feel as emotionally attached to it as I did.  What a poor choice to have started this on the bus to work!  After only a half hour of reading, I found it difficult to put the book down.  I read through my lunch break, cursing the clock that told me it was time to return to my desk, and rushed home to finish it.  I laughed, I cried, at certain times I even went so far as to hug the book I was so emotionally engaged with it. 

The (somewhat precious) premise of One Day is by now well-known: each section is a snapshot in the relationship between Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew over twenty years, always catching up with them on the same day – July 15th – rather reminding one of the film Same Time, Next Year.  Starting in 1988 in Edinburgh, the two meet just as they are graduating and heading their separate ways.  But from that day forward there is a connection between the two that the reader is then privileged to witness evolve over the following decades.  However, it’s not as though the two only meet up once a year on this day.  Indeed, many years they are separate on July 15th, thought never far from one another’s thoughts.  The relationship develops over the full year, with significant events that the reader never experiences first-hand occurring outside our limited time frame.  It’s a fascinating structure than could have easily been less successful in another’s writer’s hands, but Nicholls is masterful with his chosen form and the book flows amazing well.

I think everyone has those relationships where it seems like fate is determined to thwart you.  There’s a connection, an attraction, but there is always something just a little bit off which prevents the relationship from developing into something else.  Most of the time, you accept that whatever you hoped might happen simply isn’t going to and you move on.  But other times, as with Emma and Dexter, the connection is extraordinarily strong, worth preserving in any form, worth hoping for. 

Emma and Dexter are both highly flawed individuals, which only makes them feel more real.  When we first meet Emma, she’s a typically radicalized University student, passionately dedicated to the causes of the day, contemptuous of the bourgeoisie.  Dexter, coming from a comfortably bourgeois background, has a somewhat different take:

…with a sigh Dexter recognized her as one of those girls who used ‘bourgeois’ as a term of abuse.  He could understand why ‘fascist’ might have negative connotations but he liked the word ‘bourgeois’ and all that it implied.  Security, travel, nice food, good manners, ambitions; what was he meant to be apologizing for? (p. 8-9)

Emma, unsurprisingly for someone who studied English, is also a writer of bad poetry and an aspiring authoress.  Oh clichés, you’re true for a reason.  Dexter is good looking, not particularly intelligent, and has more money than drive.  Do I love them more because, when the novel begins, they are so close to my age and my stage in life and so, so familiar to my own friends from University?  Possibly.  But as the years go by, as they both have failures and successes of their own, I came to love them for their own distinct personalities.  That said, Emma in her twenties is particularly recognizable and Dexter’s synopsis of her situation hit rather close to home, as do her comments on being single:

Here it is.  I think you’re scared of being happy, Emma.  I think you think that the natural way of things is for your life to be grim and grey and dour and to hate your job, hate where you live, not to have success or money or God forbid a boyfriend (and a quick discersion [sic] here – that whole self-deprecating thing about being unattractive is getting pretty boring I can tell you).  In fact I’ll go further and say that I think you actually get a kick out of being disappointed and under-achieving, because it’s easier, isn’t it? (p. 42)

Of course there’s still no boyfriend, but she doesn’t mind.  Occasionally, very occasionally, say at four o’clock in the afternoon on a wet Sunday, she feels panic-stricken and almost breathless with loneliness. (p. 116)

The banter between Emma and Dexter is terribly amusing and had me giggling aloud several times.  All too often, such back-and-forth feels forced, more onerous than humourous, and I despair that the art of intelligent flirtation has been lost forever (recent romantic comedies would seem to bear this out, with the banter between romantic leads being replaced by mean-spirited fighting).  With Emma and Dexter, the banter is affectionate.  When they fight, there is no mistaking what they are doing.  These unpleasant dialogues, all the cruel, awful things they say to one another and to the other people in their lives at various points, are difficult to witness because they feel so true to life.    

Neither Emma’s nor Dexter’s life unfold as they or the reader imagined it would.  At several point in the novel, I thought I knew where it was going only to be proved completely wrong.  There is nothing neat or predictable here, which makes it all the more fascinating.

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