This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.
It may be due to my age but it seems like there’s an enormous number of stories about your teenage “coming of age” years, followed by a huge drop-off until you’re old enough to be the gray-haired mentor in another coming of age story. I’m 26 and suddenly becoming more aware of how rare it is to read a story about where I am in life right now. Anytime I come across a story with a 30-year-old — and I mean a real 30-year-old, not some character who’s written like a wise-cracking 21-year-old but they got Robert Downey Jr. to play the role so now the character is older — I realize how novel it is to gain any perspective on this period of life. Usually it’s mentioned on the side, in service to the story of someone else. Think of Ethan Hawke’s or Patricia Arquette’s characters in Boyhood, their story has just as many developments as the main character but they’re treated as secondary. It seems like a quiet concession from the storytelling world that if you don’t find purpose when you’re growing up, you’re relegated to the status of a minor role in the great tale of life.
It doesn’t seem like it at first, but One Day is about those years stumbling around without much guidance or sense of what to do. Most people know One Day for its gimmicky premise, but I was surprised the book became more than a romantic fantasy about the one who got away. It’s not a story that ends happily ever after, but it’s also not one that throws in a twist ending just to shock the reader. It doesn’t deal in the conventions of popular romance fiction. It feels like the life of two people, bonded by simple attraction and a series of events that reveals their fondness for one another. It’s not a story that’s spoiled by knowing the two of them eventually get together, because it’s not actually about the relationship that’s so prominently displayed on the cover. It’s about the aimlessness of life, the mistakes we make and how they form who we become, and the unavoidable loneliness that defines the decade following the “best years of your life.”
Why did I read it?
I was seeing a girl in college who forced One Day’s film adaptation onto me. I went into it bitter and cynical. It seemed like a stupid premise teenage girls fall in love with because it gives them an excuse not to act on their feelings when they’re younger. Clearly, if “it’s meant to be,” fate will force us to collide again and again until things work out when we’re ready. The childishness of such a fantasy isn’t exclusive to girls. On the other side of things, the story seemed to perpetuate this unrealistic male fantasy that any of the women in their life could easily become their future soulmate if they took interest in them and committed. Neither of these fantasies seem like they deserve consideration.
Despite my grouchiness, I really enjoyed the movie. I liked the characters and there was a mood to the film that matched my experience. I was also a huge fan of the set design (or potentially the directory of photography) because of their use of color in each scene. I may have liked the film but it was reviewed quite negatively for a lot of dumb reasons and a few good ones. I remember reading the main complaint was Anne Hathaway’s accent wasn’t very good. To an idiotic American like myself, that doesn’t really mean much to me. The more worthwhile criticisms complained the movie didn’t convey the spirit of the book and much of it felt too on-the-nose.
It took me five years, but I finally decided to read the book based on my interest in the movie many years ago. In addition to this inherent interest, I wanted to do some research into how to write character points of view and how an omnipresent narrator doles out information to a reader. There are many books that do this, but I also wanted to read some junk novel I could chew through to add to my 12 books a year challenge (which I have never completed successfully).
How was it?
I really loved this book. I would attribute its quality to two decisions.
The book’s framing shows a single day in the lives of Emma and Dexter, every year, for twenty years. It begins with the first day they met and continues until the story finds a conclusion even if the characters’ lives go on. This framing is the book’s essential genius. It allows for the reader to spend a lot of time with the characters and see how they develop over the years. Not every year has a climactic event. Many chapters depict mundane realities of each character’s life that emblemize where they are at that moment. For example, an early chapter shows Dexter vacationing in India, bankrolled by his parents’ money and refusing to commit to any type of career; while Emma slaves away at a minimum wage restaurant job concerned she’s going nowhere in life. This method of storytelling makes the book read like a series of vignettes. It never feels like things are slowing down to address necessary plot developments that occurred off screen. The pace moves quickly and your attachment to the characters goes along in tow.
As important as the framing is, I’d say the second and more important decision was the choice to extend the themes of the book to every person surrounding Dexter and Emma’s lives. Whether they’re plot-pertinent characters or a sideshow that only appears for a few paragraphs, the book treats each character as evidence to its thesis that your late-20s and early-30s are defined by aimlessness and unexpected circumstances. For example, early on in Emma’s storyline she gets offered a promotion at the restaurant job she’s working at. The promotion is something Emma fears more than she desires and that point is made by the description of the current manager. He’s described as a 39-years-old and his life “was never meant to be this way.” Many of the characters embody this feeling of frustration with where they are but unsure what they should be doing. While I related to Emma’s anxious desire to achieve and Dexter’s diminishing returns on “living in the moment,” I found myself relating even more to the various minor characters.
That isn’t to say the Dexter and Emma relationship takes a backseat. One Day accomplishes the rare feat of focusing on a romance and its actually explained why the two lovebirds like each other. Emma sees Dexter exert the confidence she wish she could pull off. She admires his willingness to say what he thinks, as well as his genuine interest in people’s passions and what things inspire that passion. She sees that he’s trying to achieve something meaningful with the skillset he possesses and knows he’s disappointed when his career path forces him to become inauthentic. For Dexter, he admires Emma’s thoughtfulness and intelligence, frequently noting she’s smarter than him, and feels like if he lives a life that satisfies her he knows he’s living a good life. He’s inherited a sense that he needs to perform for a matriarch-figure from his mother and likes that Emma finds him funny and entertaining, even if he can’t keep up with her book-smarts. He’s satisfied that he’s attracted the fondness of someone like Emma, it feels like an accomplishment on its own. Their relationship as friends, and later as romantic interests, feels genuine. It shows the practical reasons why they like each other but also the unexplainable love they feel toward each other that propels them to interact in the first place.
The characters come to life thanks to David Nicholls effective writing style. There are a lot of different standards for what makes “good writing,” and despite reading and writing for most of my life I’m not very tuned into what those metrics might be. I liked Nicholls writing style because it doesn’t waste your time. Every sentence has a purpose and each line serves the greater point of every paragraph and by extension the various chapters that comprise the book itself. In other popular fiction, I sometimes find myself skipping large sections of descriptive text that serves no purpose other than to attempt to force-feed a visual image by riddling the reader with every word the author could find in a thesaurus. Nicholls doesn’t do that. It’s one of the few books where I felt every sentence was one I wanted to read. I was invested in the characters and the story but it was the writing that kept me going. It seemed like every few pages there was a line that resonated very well.
One Day might be a great book or it might have expertly revealed my sentimentality toward the passage of time and empathy toward characters who feel just as lost as I am. It’s entirely possible this book’s sentimentality is eye-roll-inducing and feels corny instead of authentic, but I can’t deny my fondness for it. I’ll admit there are passages from novelty POVs that seem overtly manipulative or cliché, but they’re rare and don’t detract from what makes the book great. I’m not sure if I would’ve liked this book as much if I had read it when I was still in college, or even earlier than that. I’m not even sure if I’d continue to enjoy the book when I pass this stage of my life. What I can say is if you feel lost and disappointed with where your life is in your late-20s, this is an essential book to bring you peace of mind and some sense of hope that things will work out — even if it’s not how you expect.