One Day

One Day by David NichollsAuthor: David Nicholls
Publisher: Vintage Contemporaries (2009)
Number of Pages: 435
How long it took me to read: Two weeks
Where I got this book: I got it from a co-worker, who said she liked it and wanted me to read it before we saw the movie version.
ISBN: 978-0-307-47471-1
Book excerpt: Chapter 1: The Future
Book extra: Emma Morley’s Mix Tape
The Movie: Focus Features presents One Day, staring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess

Like a Moth to a Flame

When my co-worker gave me this book, I hadn’t heard anything about it, other than that it was going to be a movie. I don’t generally read chick-lit but this was supposed to be a more intelligent read, so I thought I’d give it a go.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “Eyes closed, the cigarette glued languidly to his lower lip, the dawn light warming the side of his face through the red filter of the curtains, he had the knack of looking perpetually posed for a photograph.” (p.5)

4. “Not yet through the front door and already the illusion of sobriety has shattered.” (p.121)

3. “There is no parenting problem in the world that can’t be solved by throwing milk at it.” (p.309)

2. “It would be inappropriate, undignified, at thirty-eight, to conduct friendships or love affairs with the ardour and intensity of a twenty-two-year-old.” (p.382)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “The room was a manifesto, and 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, ambition; what was he meant to be apologizing for?” (p.9)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“Oh no—I hate the main characters. This can’t be good, right? Maybe they’ll get less self-involved and annoying as the book goes on and as they age? There’s very little that I can relate to about them—Emma needs self-esteem and Dexter needs to be brought down a peg.”

“Nope, they’re just getting more and more self-involved as the book goes on. Why does Emma put up with Dexter’s shit? What is it about Emma that keeps Dexter coming back to her and their friendship, year after year? It seems like they have nothing in common. I don’t think the author really explains what it is about Emma that interests Dexter, a man who has his pick of women (who, annoyingly, fawn all over him even though he’s a jerk to them). In real life, I’m sure that Emma, to a guy like Dexter—selfish, manipulative, with delusions of grandeur—would be a quick one-night stand and that’s it. For Emma’s part, it drives me nuts that she’s so needy, so mousy and meek and almost lives for Dexter’s approval, lives to see Dexter every year, and doesn’t have any self-confidence. I know people like that exist, but I feel like she’s a caricature. Get a grip, woman! Get on with your life.”

“God, if this book was 300 pages shorter, I’d have been happy. The beginning chapters didn’t really grab me—I found the author’s switching of voices from Emma to Dexter confusing until about 100 pages in. I wanted to give the book a chance because I’d heard such good things about it and about the movie, but by the time Dexter is writing one-line postcards to Emma from his exploits around Europe and Emma is replying with 10-page missives, I knew I didn’t like either of these characters. It’s difficult for me to keep reading a book in which I don’t like the people, but as a matter of principle, I want to finish everything I start.

“The characters’ lopsided relationship, with Dexter’s too-cool, jerky attitude and Emma’s neediness, continues until well into the book (until almost the end, in fact), reflected in every stage of their lives. Dexter’s job as a TV announcer, his subsequent demise into mediocrity, his failed relationships, as well as Emma’s dead-end jobs, low self-worth and crappy relationships continue for pages and pages. Then, magically, Dexter hits rock-bottom and Emma is the successful one. I saw right through it.”

“Emma, have some self respect!! Forget Dexter. Forget Ian. Get a grip, woman!! You’re not defined by your relationships or non-relationships with the men in your life! What happened to you as a kid to give you such daddy issues? I don’t want to make assumptions about the author, but I’ve read an interview in which he says he was ‘a bit of a prat’ in his 20’s, and that’s definitely carried into the character of Dexter (Nicholls also says his first novel is somewhat autobiographical, so it wouldn’t surprise me if Dexter’s more jerk moves were based on Nicholls’ own experiences). Perhaps somewhat typically of some male authors, Nicholls defines Emma by her relationships with men; her success, in her eyes and in Dexter’s, isn’t based on her career or any other quality beyond her relationships (or lack thereof) with men. Dexter is a suave, seductive dude and Emma (and every other woman in the book, including his mother) is duped by his charm. I wish Nicholls had given the women a bit more credit.”

“Okay, so it wasn’t THAT bad, but it was pretty bad. The characters didn’t redeem themselves. They had mildly funny anecdotes and somewhat interesting lives, but I just don’t get the appeal of this book and these people. I wanted to smack both Emma and Dexter upside the head at least once in every chapter. I think the premise of the book is a very cool one—following the lives of two people who meet for one night over the span of a couple of decades. The problem is, I didn’t believe from the very beginning that these two people would ever want see each other again. That being said, it was interesting to see the evolution of their life trajectories (and of those of some of the recurring minor characters, like university roommates or parents).

“Some hilarious moments included Emma and Dexter’s trip to a nudist beach, Dexter’s drunken night trying to put his baby to sleep and Emma’s lament of weddings she’s had to attend. It’s interesting to take two very different people and watch how their lives develop, the jobs they perform, the travels they have, the relationships they enter into. I don’t feel like the characters grew enough, though. Maybe my dislike for these characters stems from my need to see Emma and Dexter develop as people—to see their mistakes, to right their personality flaws – quicker than people might in real life. Maybe that’s Nicholl’s goal, though—to show that people really don’t change that quickly, and that life isn’t neatly tied up at the end of several hundred pages (or two decades).”

“Did I not enjoy this book because I don’t generally like chick-lit, or because this was a particularly bad book? Why did other people like it? A friend of mine liked the book so much that he publically expressed his pleasure on his Facebook status. He doesn’t usually read fiction, my friend wrote, but One Day really did it for him. When I challenged him to tell me what he liked about it, he said it was “a complete and total cliché without reading like one.” The friend says that despite the clichés (‘young guys are assholes, young women can be self-obsessed bores,’ as he puts it), the book feels like it maps the journey of an archetypical young person’s experiences “without being overly trite or lame.” That’s likely why the book was such a hit with both men and women—it wasn’t a typical ‘chick-lit’ book; the ending (which I won’t give away), certainly was a surprise. But my friend and I differ in our opinions of how the book was written—to me it does read like a cliché, or at least the characters do. The premise and plot might not be lame or trite, but the characters are, and I just can’t get past that.

“The author is smart, though, and so is Hollywood—both the book and movie versions of Dexter and Emma appeal to both genders. I know both men and women who raved about the story and the format. The story might be typical rom-com stuff (boy meets girl, boy and girl like each other but life gets in the way, etc.) but it’s the format—returning to the male and female characters on the same day every year for decades—that’s interesting, and ultimately what gives the book a broad appeal. It became known as being a book about love and life without the off-putting stereotypical romantic-comedy or chick-lit drama that might keep many people away.”

“I would love to watch the movie, and am mad I missed it in the theatres. I’ll be most interested too see how much my dislike for the characters on the page translates onto the screen. Will Dexter be a jerk, or will he be more of a philandering pretty-boy just trying to find his way? Will Emma be so insufferably needy and self-absorbed? I don’t know much about the actor who plays Dexter, Jim Sturgess, but on paper (well, on the Internet) he looks like he would fit the part. It might be a little difficult for Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, to play the part of a homely, dumpy, awkward young woman.”

Kate Dubinski

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  3. Charlie says:

    Someone at work was extolling the virtues of this book this morning (really powerful, one of the best books ever read etc.) I made myself unpopular by proposing the opposite view: lightweight, (unsym)pathetic characters, average writing and ultimately a shoulder-shrugging read. The ‘shock’ near the end left me unmoved because by then I cared so little about the tedious twosome that they could have become al-Qaida suicide bombers and I still wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. It goes to show that and ‘easy read’ is nearly always an unsatisfying one.

  4. Caroline says:

    I just typed ‘Does anyone else think that Dexter in One Day doesn’t deserve Emma?’ into a search engine and this review came up.
    This book is exactly the kind of thing that I would expect to enjoy and while I did like certain aspects of it (the blend of romance and comedy, the different viewpoints and probably more than anything the fact that I could relate to nearly everything given that I was hopelessly in love with my best friend at university), but there was one huge problem that nagged at me: I didn’t really want the characters to get together!
    I know that this is the central premise of the book which everything leads up to and I was intrigued to see how the characters would grow to allow this to happen. But all I felt when it did was that Dexter was such an arsehole throughout that he didn’t deserve Emma’s sympathy or love. He only turned to her when he had lost everything else and never seemed to appreciate her at all. I would have been much more satisfied if she had refused him (maybe this is my own bitterness coming through?) Also, her death just seemed like a convenient way to avoid a fairytale ending…although I did quite like the way that Dexter and Nicholls handled the aftermath of this.

  5. Kate says:

    Glad you agree, Victoria! I haven’t been able to find anyone else who feels like we do about this book. I wouldn’t recommend it, either!

  6. Victoria says:

    Finally, someone else agrees this book was mediocre at best. I felt depressed every time I put this book down, why would I want to read a book about how rubbish two people’s lives are, and how powerless they seem to change it? Did it make other people feel better about their own lives, and that’s why they loved it? Who knows…..but I know I wouldn’t recommend it.

  7. Conor says:

    Thanks for writing this, Kate. I spent ages wading through the swamp of praise for this novel online, and now I can give up after a hundred pages. It’s well written but has no depth, presenting a prettified view of life and people. But at least its admirers are in capable hands, instead of revelling in the sex-and-Nazis semi-porn of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, the Marlboro advert world of ‘The Bridges of Madison County’, the superman fantasy world of James Bond, and so on. It reminded me of ‘Pretty Woman’ and ‘Love Story’, and I’d rather read books that deal honestly with characters and give us something that engages the mind and not just our desires.

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