Friday, August 20, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'One Day'

The Book: One Day

The Author: David Nicholls

How I Found It: It was mentioned in an article about 15 books to read before they became movies. Given that Jim Sturgess, an actor I love, is playing the male lead, I decided I just had to! The movie, starring Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway, will be out next fall.

The Review: On the night of their college graduation, July 15th, 1988, Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew share a bed--they do not have sex, but after some kissing, they lie back and wonder where their lives will go. Dexter is well-off and can get anything he wants in the world, whereas Emma is working-class and self-conscious. Both of them have ideas about what they want to become, and on that day, all of their lives seem to be in front of them.

The problem is, life never turns out exactly as you expect it, and we get to watch how Dexter and Emma's lives turn out, because the idea of the novel is that we check in on the two of them for the next twenty years, always on that same day, July 15th. Dexter ends up working in television, instead of the journalism career he once imagined, and finds himself increasingly drawn to drugs, booze, and women. Emma tells herself she deserves the dull job at a fast food establishment, the unfunny comedian boyfriend--and that she most certainly doesn't deserve Dex, who attracts and infuriates her all at once. Over twenty years, they're friends sometimes and not at others, but the connection between them is always lurking just beneath the surface, waiting to see what it could become.

I don't quite know what to say about this book without giving things away. The author whose style I can compare it to ultimately would be a dead giveaway. I could say how a certain thing made me feel, and that would be a dead giveaway. I'll tread lightly. What I can say is, the reviews touting this as a "feel-good love story" aren't quite true. It's more of a "feel-depressed only-a-love-story-at-times." It's depressing because it really is a reminder that life doesn't always go as planned, and it certainly isn't fair. For someone my age, it's a reminder that life after college is going to be a horribly scary place. I suppose that it did one thing right--it captured the anxiety of not knowing, the aimless drifting when one isn't sure where one wants his or her life to go.

I could relate to many of the emotions in the section about their early twenties, I could relate to Emma wanting someone she couldn't have, I could relate to her self-conciousness. But Dexter and Emma aren't always likable people, just as people aren't always likable in real life. I was invested enough in the characters that I felt happy for them, sad for them, and disappointed in them. Even if the characters aren't likable on occasion (and almost always unlikable, when it comes to Dexter), I still wanted to know what was going to happen, and I kept turning the pages for quite a while in order to find out. The dialogue is great: it's snappy and can sometimes be truly funny; I laughed aloud at a couple points. Nicholls certainly is a good writer, but it's the writing that can be a fault at times in this book.

In theory, the idea of a story taking place on the same day for twenty years is great--I love it, personally. The thing is, though, you can never go beyond that date, to the other 364 days of the year, and that often became limiting. One character would tell another one that they'd talk to them about something the next day, and we wouldn't get to see that happen--only hear it relayed to us during the following year's chapter. It sometimes became clumsy and rather annoying to deliberately leave us on that hook and then just drop whatever it had been at some random part in the next chapter. We would never fully get to see certain things all the way through, only hear about them after. I personally wonder how the movie is going to work on this respect: flashbacks will probably be the way to go, as putting it all into dialogue would be cumbersome.

The romance itself was pretty well-done, but it wasn't really much of a romance as it was a story of two people not really recognizing what was in front of them. They don't recognize what they could be until late in the story, as it is in nearly all of these types of books or movies. We are shown the people in between, the complications, and these people pass in and out of Dexter and Emma's lives as they would in real life. The romance felt believable because neither of them recognized it for what it could become--they're too young to notice it, too self-centered or not self-centered enough.

I really liked the idea of the book, but when I finished, it was with a sense of unfulfilled potential. There wasn't much of a deep message beyond living life to the fullest before the years go by, and that's been done a thousand times before. It was simply a book of snapshots of two peoples' lives over twenty years, and though it did accurately capture different concerns that come up at different times in a person's life, it never really felt all that original. Some plot twists came up and took me by surprise, until I thought about it and realized, yeah, I probably should have seen that coming. The once-a-year device is pretty much the only original thing about the story; the rest is rather formulaic.

And to me, it all unraveled at the end. Again, I really can't say much without giving anything away. Every comparison I'd like to make would be a spoiler. I feel as though I've read or seen too many things recently where my enjoyment has been spoiled by the ending, which either doesn't deal fully with the implications or just doesn't seem fair. That was the case here: the ending really didn't seem fair at all. I'd heard tell that this ending doesn't really work in a book, but that it would work in a movie. I agree that it probably will work in a movie, although I do get the feeling my reaction to seeing it all play out on screen will be the same as my friend's reaction to a movie we watched a few weeks ago: "That was a great movie! But I kind of feel like I want to kill myself now!"

Overall, the book was great until the last forty pages or so. I would like to pretend they do not exist. However, if you're a fan of romances or are intrigued by the setup, it's worth a looksee.


  1. I really agree with your overall evaluation of this book. I couldn't put it down; I thought it was smart and I liked the characters, and then there were those last pages...bummer.


  2. Thanks, Laura! When I glanced at other reviews for the work on Amazon and such, I saw that I definitely wasn't alone! I really enjoyed the story overall, but I was just so stunned by that twist that I turned the page so fast to see what happened next and if it really HAD happened... then turned back to make sure I'd read it right! It just felt so contrived.

  3. I'm putting this on my 'To-read' list just for the simple fact that your review made me want to know EXACTLY what you were talking about.. I want to read the book and then think 'OH that was what Trai was talking about', I'm sure you know that feeling. :) Great review and you didn't give anything away you just made me want to know what's going on.