This is yet another one of those books I meant to read when it came out (in 2009), but have only just managed to. Still, better late than never. Having finally read it, I can also now allow myself to watch the film, and having seen the trailer I’m curious to try out two hours or Anne Hathaway’s poor attempts at a Yorkshire accent. It also apparently has a few scenes filmed in Cubana, the greatest cocktail bar ( / restaurant, but I’ve actually never eaten there) in London, which I find more exciting than I should. But anyway, in a brief introduction it’s a novel that spans twenty years, each chapter picking up on the exact same day of every year, exploring the lives and relationship of two people, Emma and Dexter.
It reminded me (for at least a great part of the novel), of Celhia Anhern’s Where Rainbows End. The premise is fairly similar – the man and woman whose relationship teeters on the borderline between friendship and love, both stretching over a long time – Where Rainbows End covers over forty years I think, and One Day covers about twenty. Both novels have a very different, but equally out-of-the-norm structure, with Where Rainbows End being an epistolary novel and One Day showing the lives of two individuals on the same day each year. It’s a curious feature of the publishing world that if you looked at the front covers of these two novels you would probably expect them to be completely different. For example:
Apparently earlier this year Jodi Picoult said:
If a woman had written One Day, it would have been [sold as] airport fiction
I think she has a slight point. There’s a little angry part of me that is fairly sure that, had One Day had a female author, the writing on the cover would have been as curly as the writing on the cover of Where Rainbows End. But let’s move on before I get cross.
I like One Day (up to a point – a very specific point that I will get onto later). In the end, even though I think David Nicholls shows far greater skill as a writer, as a novel I do think I probably prefer Where Rainbows End, but there’s still much to be said for One Day. I really like the structure. I enjoy novels that try to do something other than the traditional linear narrative, that play with form, and Nicholls does it quite effectively here.
It is generally pretty written well, especially the dialogue, which is particularly strong between Emma and Dexter. Sure, it is at times atrociously cheesy, but so are a lot of books, and I can just about live with that. Besides, I enjoy that at least some of the cheesiness is undermined (for example: ‘you’re gorgeous, you old hag, and if I could give you just one gift ever for the rest of your life it would be this. Confidence… Either that or a scented candle.’) At times the novel is very funny (Emma especially), and the book is mostly engaging. I read the majority of it on a four and a half hour train journey, and didn’t year bored – which is probably a good sign.
The characterisation of the two main characters is strong. I really like Emma, and I think Dexter is changes over the novel are very effective. Even when you don’t like him you find him believable, which is more important. You can perfectly understand how Emma could love him and not like him all at once. I think their characters are done very well, and all are the more impressive considering the fact that the novel spans twenty years, and that no one remains the same over such a period of time. I thought their character development, especially Dexter’s, was done well.
It was the minor characters who fell short a bit. I found this with Where Rainbows End and Eleanor& Park as well (much as I liked both of them), so perhaps romances always have this problem – that the two central characters are fully developed into human beings and the side characters remain nothing but side characters. This always annoys me. Just because the novel isn’t about them, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t feel as real (if not necessarily as interesting) as the central figures. Dexter’s parents seem interesting, but are never fully explored. Ian feels like a stereotype, as does Suki Meadows. Sylvie is underdeveloped. I couldn’t quite make her out – and not in a good way.
However, I could have forgiven this had it not been for the ending (surprise, surprise). I really loved One Day – until page 385. The ending was a let-down to me. It wasn’t moving or effective because it just felt like a cop-out to me.
Basically, I greatly disliked that Nicholls killed Emma. It didn’t feel like the ending he’d been planning. It felt like he couldn’t quite decide if Emma and Dexter were going to end up together or not, and so just decided to kill her out of pure indecision. There was no foreshadowing. The moment wasn’t even given enough space to be moving, I just sat there reading and thought, really, that just happened? You’re really doing that? So either he couldn’t decide, or he realised he’d written a romance and thought he ought to kill someone to try and make it into a literary novel instead (perhaps so no one would publish it with curly writing on the front). The ending didn’t fit with the book I’d read. That would be a fine ending to that story, but not to that book. If he’d begun the novel at a funeral, or with Dexter alone, and had the rest of the book as flashbacks, even if you hadn’t known who died later, or even that anybody had, it might have worked better. As it was I was irritated rather than moved by Emma’s death. It was a cop-out. For me it ruined the entire novel. Rant over.
Still, I will say in the defence of Nicholls that this bad ending was handled well, strange as that sounds. Although I did not like the plotted ending, I thought the structure of the ending worked well.
Still, even though I was disappointed, I think I’m glad I read it. Possibly. It is a well-written and good book with an ending that irritated me. There are rather a lot of them out there.
Greatest strength: The characterisation of Emma and Dexter – and the novel’s structure.
Greatest weakness: The ending.
Let’s finish on a quote: I want my best friend back, she thinks, because without him nothing is good and nothing is right.
Yes, definitely cheesy.
Next week: Paper Towns, by John Green