Review: One Day by David Nicholls

One Day by David Nicholls Book Cover
One Day (2009) traces the lives of two university graduates - the funny, intelligent and liberal Emma Morley, and the arrogant, moneyed playboy Dexter Mayhew. The novel opens the day after Dex and Em's graduation in 1988, the pair having just met and spent their first night together, and follows them through the next twenty years, describing just one day each year - St. Swithin's Day. Although they are instantly attracted to one another their lives pull them apart, neither one having the drive or inclination to overcome the hurdles necessary to build a relationship together. And so, for twenty years, jobs, friends and relationships drift in and out of their respective lives; Dexter landing an attractive spot on late-night TV before succumbing to the temptations of alcohol, women and drugs, and losing his youth to a swirl of superficial delights, Emma struggling through a string of low paying jobs and grotty apartments before making progress towards her goal of becoming a published writer. As their lives unfold, seemingly straying further and further apart, the question is: can they find a way to put their baggage aside and rekindle that pure and magnetic attraction they experienced as young graduates?

In many ways the novel is a cautionary tale; an exploration of how we treat, and often fail to nurture, love, and a warning against failing to act from the heart and allowing oneself to be swept up in the triviality of everyday existence, whilst neglecting the most important elements of one's life. In having the novel culminate in the late 2000s Nicholls forces the reader into self-evaluation, and for those of the same generation as the characters, the novel takes on an added significance. Indeed, the novel is very firmly grounded in the time period it depicts to the point, at times, of cliché.

Choosing to focus on just one day each year is an interesting device and one that lends itself well to exploring the evolution of the central characters' lives, however, it also requires a degree of exposition in each chapter, usually via flashbacks, which can irritate a little and provides a strange juxtaposition in a novel that moves forwards so rapidly. The writing though is fresh and flows well, the dialogue evocative of the period described. There are certainly amusing moments; some embarrassing encounters, and witty observations, but too often the novel feels a little dull.

Whilst the over-arching concept is a good one, there are problems. The initial meeting and nurturing of the relationship involves a considerable degree of contrivance given the nature of Dexter's character, and it requires a leap of faith to believe that, whilst moving from one meaningless fling to another, Dexter would go out of his way to draw Emma, to all intents and purposes an equally meaningless fling, into his life. More problematic is one's relationship with the central characters; Dexter is vile for the majority of the novel and, even after becoming a father, shows no signs of maturity and no redeeming features beyond the superficial. Emma on the other hand, whilst being fundamentally a sympathetic character, is frustratingly directionless and one roots, rather than for Dexter to see the light and sweep Emma off her feet, for Emma to treat Dexter as he deserves, and cut the toxic relationship out of her life permanently. These flaws fundamentally undermine a lot of what the novel attempts and, ultimately, leave one a little cold to the novel as a whole.

It's hard to say how I felt about this book; I didn't love it, I didn't hate it. If anything I was indifferent, which is about as bad as it can get really! I didn't like the main characters particularly, I thought the author laid it on thick whenever possible (he really threw the kitchen sink at the plot), and I didn't engage with the book on an emotional level. One Day left me slightly irritated, and fairly disbelieving of the dynamic that drove the book.

Useful Links
Reviews of One Day on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of One Day on Amazon (US)
Movie Adaptation of One Day on Amazon (UK)
Movie Adaptation of One Day on Amazon (US)


Anonymous said...

Glad to read this blog! Keep it going!

Megan said...

I really want to read this book and I also want to see the film. Thanks for highlighting it, I really enjoyed your review. You're a great writer!

Megan @ Storybook Love Affair

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

@ Anonymous

Thanks for the comment - glad you are enjoying it :)

@ Megan

There's been so much hype about this book - you should definitely give it a try. It left me a little cold, but my Mum loved it, and the film!

Petra said...

Oh well, so I can happily watch the film without reading the book and feeling guilty! :)

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

I reckon so - although opinion is quite mixed so you might love the book, and I could be completely wrong.

(I'm not) :P

Talei said...

Great review! Thanks so much for stopping by my blog too. I guess you know what I thought about this book. If theres one thing I could change - it would be the ending, it made me a little sad.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks for stopping by Talei! :) I agree the ending was a bit harsh, very much like the finale of Cold Feet, which Nicholls wrote for. That storyline had a lot more emotional bite than this one for me though.

Petra said...

I read some not so good reviews on Goodreads by people I kind of trust, so I think I can trust you too, in this case! :)

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Oh well, if there's a few people who you trust saying it then might as well avoid. To be honest, anyone I spoke to about it, whose opinion I usually share, warned me that I wouldn't like it much.

Melinda said...

Yes, I agree Nicholls' character development could have been more nuanced, but he was working within in very tight structure (having the two protagonists meet every year on the same day for 20 some odd years.) What struck me about the book was the author's quote from Dickens toward the beginning which talks about how one event, or one day can alter your entire life ( here Dickens was referencing Great Expectations and Pip's encounter with the convict) Having been forced to read Dickens at much too young an age to understand him, and hence dismiss him for years, I recently picked up Great Expectations BECAUSE of that quote from One Day. What a welcome pleasure! Surely it speaks well of an author if a reader is lead to another author from mention of his ideas

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Yes, I remember the Dickens quote from the book. It's an interesting one. Certainly I believe that most people live fairly routine lives, which are broken up by rare, truly significant events that change the direction of their lives afterwards. What I find interesting is how the One Day of the title represents this. There isn't one solitary day in the novel, that changes the course of events above all others (feel free to disagree, but which would it be?). But equally the fact that these short, sharp moments of significance are by their nature random and unexpected means that they can't occur on the same day every year, and so Nicholls has to look back to the day of significance in each year, from a stationary and predetermined point. Haven't quite got my head around it yet, but would be glad to hear anyone's explanation.

In a world where we have footballers tweeting Orwell, I'm not sure I make any judgements about a person based on their ability to regurgitate other people's ideas. Still, if it led you on to reading some Dickens that is indeed a good thing, and very good timing with Dickens's bicentenary upon us.

Thanks for a really great comment Megan – this is exactly what I wanted when I started blogging – to be challenged, and to grow in my knowledge with those around me. Drop by any time :)

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