Thursday, 22 September 2011

One Day by David Nicholls

Lowdown: A relationship sampled over the course of twenty years.
One Day is a romantic story, or at least as romantic as I would ever dare to come in close proximity to. This atypical genre raises an important question: what is a book like this doing with me, a guy that tends to read cold hearted science fiction and non fiction? My answer to this question is of a romantic nature, too.
I was visiting the UK recently when I first heard of this book while reading a Guardian review of its newly released movie version. The review wasn’t favorable, but it was clear the book had some emotional impact on the movie reviewer in the sense that they treated the book as a very British affair. Couple the review with me bumping into the book wherever I toured, promoted at every book shop on the British isles, and you can quickly understand why it didn’t take long for me to associate One Day with Britain; from that point onwards it occurred to me that reading the book might enhance my visit of 2011 UK and allow me to better understand this place I'm touring.
I thus went ahead, opened my wallet wide for the $10 asking price, and downloaded One Day to my Kindle while in the course of my UK visit (at this point I would like to thank my wifi hotspot for allowing me to stay in touch with the internets while overseas). I am making the specific point about the book’s asking price because One Day turned out to be the first ebook I got to buy where the asking price was more than its dead tree version. Not only was Amazon itself selling the book for a bit less than the ebook, I was able to buy the paperback for 3.5GBP at any bookstore around me. I chose the Kindle version for its comfort, but I hope this is not the beginning of a trend: after all, one of the main advantages the ebook has over its conventional partner is its reduced manufacturing and logistical costs; there is absolutely no justification for selling it at a premium. If the trend continues I am sure both publishers and distributors would learn to regret this mistake, the same way music lables have been losing out on potential sales ever since digital contents became available over the Internet.
Back to the main matter at hand, the book. After multiple failed science fiction reads I was looking forward to something different, but I had my concerns with romance. One Day, however, quickly delivered: it became clear from the start that although this is the story of a love affair it is also a serious piece of literature. In other words, if I am to read a romantic tale, having a book of One Day’s caliber is a good way to tackle the matter.
The story follows two people, Emma and Dexter. She is from Yorkshire, he is more of a central England character with a privileged background. We start off on the night of their Edinburgh university’s graduation, where they spend the night together but through one thing or another don’t get to have sex. Something does happen between them, though; we are kept in the dark as to the fine details there. We don’t know them because the book plays a trick on us: instead of telling us the linear story of what transpires between Emma and Dexter, it tells us of what happens to these two characters during a single day (15 July, if I am not mistaken) each year. We thus follow our duo 15 July’s events over the course of twenty years.
A lot happens over those twenty years. Life happens! Indeed, one of the reasons I liked One Day so much is its authentic, life like nature: unlike the fodder that passes for romance or romantic comedy in Hollywood, this is the real deal. Our heroes live an authentic life, having to deal with issues that affect each and every one of us: parents, death, career, finding their own feet, finding their professional destiny, feeling miserable for themselves, getting married, having kids, relationships, and of course – love. As a bonus, events are properly tied to their set time: things taking place during the eighties have that eighties feel to them, and the same goes for following decades.
I particularly liked author David Nicholls’ point of view. It mirrored mine too often to be a mere coincidence. I liked the way he sarcastically described the wedding ceremony trend of having to outdo whatever extravagant ceremony everyone before has had. More importantly, I liked the way he frames his main characters with well defined supporting characters: be it the people Emma and Dexter think they fall in love with when they’re in denial about being in love with one another, or be it their parents’ characters. In particular I liked the way Nicholls emphasizes how much of an effect random like events outside the sphere of influence of our heroes have had on the characters. We think we are in control of our lives, and especially when we are young we think we are the masters of the universe, but we’re not; we can only make the most of what the circumstances imposed on us offer.
Needless to say, One Day’s main story is the story of the relationship between its leading characters. The catch is that although to us, third party observers, it is dead obvious the two should just get together to celebrate their mutual lives, to them things are significantly less clearer; hence the book managing to span over twenty years. Personally, I have found Emma’s character to be quite convincing as it develops over the years: I could very easily identify with her to the point of seeing myself in her despite the gender differences. I cannot, however, say the same about Dexter’s character: I accept him being a bit sleazy and him having an agenda of mainly getting laid with any woman that passes through his airspace, but I had a problem seeing eye to eye with a character that spends more than half the [thick] book drunk.
That, however, has been the only weak spot I could find in an otherwise extremely interesting read. Before concluding, I would like to praise the way One Day deals with the concept of love; it's probably the one thing I loved the most about the book. I have already mentioned the book deals with love, I have mentioned how different it is to American movies, and I mentioned how authentic and life like One Day feels. One Day's love story brings all these points together; however, instead of offering us the familiar single dimension Western concept of love, as in the two partners kissing into the sunset, One Day offers a complex array of love variations. In its way it evokes the various niches of love thought up by Greek philosophers (see here). It's refreshing to encounter a popular book that allows itself to step out of conventionality and offer some depth, especially on a matter that touches everyone as profoundly as love.
One Day certainly managed to enhance my experience of visiting Britain; I severely doubt the film would be able to reproduce or even come close to this book’s achievements.
It’s hard for me to rate a book coming from a genre I read so little of (it’s just so mainstream!), but I can confidently say I liked One Day 4 out of 5 stars much.

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