One Day, David Nicholls – review

The most innovative feature of One Day is obviously its concept: each chapter (until the last few) focus on the same day (15th July) of every year from 1988 to 2008, following the lives of two Edinburgh University graduates, Emma and Dexter, as their lives periodically intertwine and come apart.

This idea allows you to tell the ‘story’ of a life – to document a life. Conventional narrative or biographies focus on what are judged the most important parts of someone’s life: fast-forwarding through whole years and slowing down to focus on events which make up a tiny fraction of the overall period of time; often jumping forwards and backwards through time to thematically order things. The concept of One Day is perhaps a purer way to measure and recount life: the structure is systematic and unbiased, and accounts for someone’s daily emotions and the mundane things they do.

Of course, this does mean lots of important things not occurring on 15th July are missed out: however, these are often talked about as memories. The structure also makes the reader far more aware of the characters’ past than they are themselves when they are immersed in daily life. It almost feels like visiting an old family friend who you only see once a year: each year’s ‘visit’ adds another layer onto your memory of them, and you relate how they are on that day with your experience of them from previous years.

Even though some things are missed out due to the format, the story still seems contrived as a large proportion of the significant events in the pairs’ lives, and an even larger proportion of the significant events involving both happen on 15th July. They meet on that day, they get together on that day in Paris, and finally Emma dies on that day and it is made into a ritualistic date by Dexter’s grief in subsequent years. This gives the day a mythical quality; it brings together two lives through fate.

It is a shame that aside from Dexter and Emma, it is hard to get a real sense of many of the important people in their lives. Tilly Killock is referenced a lot and appears several times; however during the period where Emma is best friends with her we don’t really get a sense of her character. Emma’s parents do not appear at all.

The book is fundamentally about the story of a generic life: the passage of time on a linear scale contrasts our hopes and expectations with what happens in reality. Sartre said there is no such thing as the past; this book seems to suggest that we cannot escape our past. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, alcohol is the cause of, and solution to, many of Dexter’s problems: he reverts to drink when struggling with fame and then the loss of it; and with getting married and towards the end of the book when mourning. Emma, through Dexter’s eyes, continues to be self-depreciating and snide throughout the book.

Throughout the book the reader is waiting for Emma and Dexter to get together. It seems as if they are waiting as well. This shows the way we wait passively in life, procrastinating our dreams and hopes, expecting them to eventually come, instead of ‘living for the moment’. The saddest moments in the book probably come when it looks as if the chance of them getting together has vanished. This happens firstly when Dexter and Emma are together at Tilly’s wedding in the maze, and Emma finds out Dexter is getting engaged. It happens the other way round in the most surreal scene in the book (for me) in Paris, where Dexter finds out Emma has a French boyfriend. Of course the tragedy of the book is that Emma dies so soon after finally getting together with Dexter: the point to which her life since graduation had been fatefully building up.

In another twist of fate, the pair’s ups and downs in their lives are correlated: the book starts with Emma having received a good degree whilst Dexter has scraped a 2:2. Then Emma struggles to ‘find’ herself for the next few years: doing the theatre productions and working in a Tex Mex; whilst Dexter goes travelling and lands a media job. Dexter’s loses his touch as a TV presenter; but at this stage Emma is a trained, successful teacher. In the next period Dexter is happy with his girlfriend whilst Emma becomes single and disenfranchised with her job. Dexter breaks up with his wife as Emma becomes a successful author. The ending is absurd: a death at the moment where Emma feels content, perhaps for the first time in her life, and where both are happy.

Overall, the story is unpredictable yet retains a sense of the fateful and inevitable. It deals with a topic as big as life, but in a contemporary time setting, meaning as well as the book being insightful, the story feels familiar. Amazing.

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