I sped-read One Day in two days (I wish I could say it was one day to tie things in nicely, but I’ve just not got the time/concentration span to read a book in a day!), because I had made plans to see the film and I didn’t want to go in blind. I’ve been sniffy about One Day ever since it came out; if everyone is reading a book, I automatically don’t want to join them, and you couldn’t get a book more ubiquitous than this. Everyone’s reading it everywhere you go; on the subway, on the bus, in the work cafeteria, at their book club; it’s been in my face constantly for the past year or so. Such a snob am I that I even borrowed my friend’s Kindle to read the copy she had downloaded rather than get the paperback and publicly declare myself as another David Nicholls groupie! Incidentally, I very much enjoyed reading the book on the Kindle and it has made me reassess my reasons for not investing in one. It would certainly ease up my lower back pain from carting around a huge book everywhere I go, that’s for sure!
As usual, I digress. Much to my surprise, I was hooked on One Day from page one. It is addictive reading, I have to admit. Emma and Dex are the two protagonists who meet one July 15th while at university in Edinburgh and then get revisited every July 15th for the next 20 years, charting the ups and downs of their individual lives and their relationship with each other. They are both very real and their stories are incredibly emotionally engaging. They struggle through their twenties; Emma jumps from one dead end job to another and flounders in a relationship with a perfectly nice boy she can’t love, whereas Dex quickly finds phenomenal success in the media world, but personal tragedy and substance abuse cause his life to be far from the fairytale it appears. As they grow up, move into their thirties, and begin to work their way through the various rites of passage of adulthood, their friendship remains a source of comfort and joy for them both. However, the shaky romances of both Emma and Dex do constantly beg the question of whether they are both avoiding the inevitable, and as time marches on and their lives do not work out as they had hoped and dreamed, Emma and Dex increasingly find solace in one another.
In many ways the plot is horrendously predictable and there is very little subtlety about many of the big life changing events; I could see them signposted pages before they were announced. However, it’s also a very daring plot in that it is totally realistic and not in any way romantic about life; to use a rather crude phrase, shit happens, and it happens in spades for both Dex and Emma, who weather much disappointment, heartache, grief and loneliness in their individual pursuits of happiness. Nicholl’s observations on the difficulties of forging a competent, fulfilling adult life in the face of constant competition and envy of your peer group’s success; of finding someone to love and be loved by; of finding a purpose and a vocation and of coping with the myriad of difficulties and decisions that life hits you with that you are never taught how to cope with, are true and touching. Life is difficult and confusing and without realising it, we waste a lot of it; it takes us too long now to grow up, to stop believing in fantasies, to recognise the good that is in our lives and appreciate what it is that truly makes us happy. Wrapped up in the pursuit of career success and high ideals, Emma and Dex waste much of their youth, and this sense of missed opportunities and regret is what gives the book its poignancy.
The quality of the writing is nothing special, but it’s not trying to be. It’s not award winning material and it’s never going to be a modern classic, but when it comes to accurately portraying the often harsh realities of life, it’s absolutely spot on. I cried and cried and cried and I also burst out laughing plenty of times. As much as I hate to say it, the quality of the prose wasn’t really that important to me as I read it; it emotionally engaged me, it entertained me and it kept me glued to its pages. What more could I ask for? Nicholls effortlessly made me care about Emma and Dex and desperately want them to find their happiness. Their lives obsessed me while I was reading the book; I couldn’t stop thinking about them and being nervous about what would come next. I felt dirty when I put it down, but the good kind of dirty, like after eating McDonald’s. It was a naughty, indulgent treat, and I loved every minute of it. I hate to say it, but it’s definitely worth a read if you’re looking for a non demanding reading experience with a cracking good story.
The film, on the other hand, was appalling. Anne Hathaway, while playing Emma very well, has no clue where she’s supposed to be from, and her accent was highly distracting. One minute she was American, the next an Upper Class British aristocrat, the next Australian, and then the odd word would crop up in a comedy Yarkshur accent. Frankly, it was embarrassing. Jim Sturgess does Dexter very well and I thought Rafe Spall was excellent as Ian, but despite the good acting, it just didn’t work well as a film. The structure was choppy, the character development thin and the relationship between Emma and Dex totally lacked emotional depth. Without the detailed knowledge of their personalities and lives that you get from the book, the film would leave you confused and cold; they focus too much on cramming in events without getting at the heart behind them. The air of melancholy and regret that hangs over the book just wasn’t transferred onto the screen, and as such, the emotional impact of the novel evaporated. It was a bit of a wasted opportunity, really, and I was more than a little disappointed. Stick to the book!