I’ve read a book I wish I’d written.
I saw the poster for the film a few weeks ago when I went to see Winnie-the-Pooh, and after I got past its striking image of two people embracing in the street, I noticed not that One Day stars Hathaway (an actress that, honestly, I am not that familiar with) but that it stars Sturgess, whose performance I enjoyed a great deal in Across the Universe even if I thought the film itself was a little messy.
The wonderful thing about now having a smartphone is that, as I waited for Pooh to begin, I could figure out what One Day was, right there, in the darkened theater. Said Amazon:
The Hollywood-ready latest from Nicholls (The Understudy) makes a brief pit stop in book form before its inevitable film adaptation. (It’s already in development.) The episodic story takes place during a single day each year for two decades in the lives of Dex and Em. Dexter, the louche public school boy, and Emma, the brainy Yorkshire lass, meet the day they graduate from university in 1988 and run circles around one another for the next 20 years. Dex becomes a TV presenter whose life of sex, booze, and drugs spins out of control, while Em dully slogs her way through awful jobs before becoming the author of young adult books. They each take other lovers and spouses, but they cannot really live without each other. Nicholls is a glib, clever writer, and while the formulaic feel and maudlin ending aren’t ideal for a book, they’ll play in the multiplex.
This intrigued me enough that the next day I walked to Borders on my lunch break (during which I was set upon by a strange man that I think was trying to mug me) and bought One Day (with movie tie-in cover) and George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons (since they still had first printings of the hardcover).
I sped through the book, or at least the first 150 pages, but due to some personal issues (see here) I left the book aside and unfinished for the better part of a week and a half. Last night, thanks to what I think was a derailment of a Baltimore subway train, I finished the last 150 pages.
I can’t add much to the description of the book on Amazon; in broad strokes, that’s what the book is. The movie trailer leaves behind the impression that the two meet up again every July 15th on the anniversary of their meeting, and while there are July 15ths where they do spend the day (at least partly) together, there are more July 15ths in the book where they don’t. Indeed, there’s one chapter midway through where Emma Morley doesn’t even appear. Instead, the book shows us where the two characters are and who they’ve become on the anniversary of that meeting, whether they are in physical proximity or not.
Frankly, they’re not always interesting characters. Just as real people change over the years, Emma and Dexter change, and not always for the better, and not always learning from their mistakes. Dexter goes through a period in his late twenties — the “life of sex, booze, and drugs” as described by Amazon — where he’s really not likeable at all. Emma makes some inexplicable decisions in her life, and she has moments of emotional cruelty. Time does mellow them to some extent, and the rougher edges smooth away. Towards the latter third of the book, as Em and Dex both move into their late-thirties, there are some interesting reflections on how one’s energies and enthusiasms wane as the years pass and the realities of adulthood settle in. Nicholls writes some passages of truly insightful characterization, and he does a marvelous job in sketching out his characters and the world they inhabit.
But One Day isn’t perfect. The book’s structure — twenty consecutive years on July 15th — is an interesting conceit, but it forces some awkward and unfortunate creative choices, especially with some of the character development, where events have to be told, not shown, as most of the critical events in their relationship take place off-page. One Day also isn’t as balanced between its leads as it could be; Emma’s development takes a backseat about halfway through the book (she doesn’t even appear in one of the middle chapters), perhaps because she’s not as damaged as Dexter, and a late character development of hers doesn’t feel authentic. The book is knowingly narratively clever — Nicholls plays some interesting tricks with point-of-view, seamlessly moving from Dexter to Emma in the course of a scene, even a paragraph — but its shifts in verb tense from past to present are off-putting and frequently unnecessary. Finally, I’m not sure that the structure of the final five chapters is necessary; as the narrative continues to push forward the book cycles back to tell the immediate aftermath of their first meeting in 1988, but that tale is spread out across several chapters, when I think it would be better served by being told in a single go as the final chapter of the book.
Also, it would be impossible for Dexter to being playing Doom on the PlayStation in July 1995; the system didn’t go on sale in Europe and North America until September of that year. (I worked for EB Games for seven years. I know this stuff.) And there’s a reference to Travis that feels out-of-place; I think it’s meant to be reference to The Man Who, but I don’t think the album had been released by then, and it wouldn’t make sense as a reference to Good Feeling, as that album isn’t anything worth noticing.
Don’t take those criticisms as reasons not to read One Day. It was always an engaging read, and during the week and a half where I didn’t pick up the book I found myself thinking of the characters and their lives and where they might end up. Nicholls’ prose sparkles, his characters are intriguing, their dialogue rings true. It’s a romantic book, too, examining as it does the pull that the two have on each other, and whether or not they can be anything more than just friends. And One Day draws out genuine emotion, ranging from amusement to genuine sadness and everything in-between.
I don’t know if I’ll see the film of One Day — even knowing the actors cast in the film, I couldn’t match them to the characters in the book — though I could, even midway through, match the scenes in the film’s trailer to scenes in the book. (The film’s poster, by the way, is the book’s final scene.) I’m glad I read the book.
I enjoyed One Day. I might even call it magic.
And I wish I’d written it.
Originally published here.