I've a weird fascination for romance stories and romantic comedies. I say weird because, as a guy, it isn't considered socially acceptable. Guys are supposed to be nonchalant, perpetually tough, and unwilling to show emotion. To do otherwise would be to fail what is expected of us. I see the draw of that image, just as I simultaneously reject it.
I like romances because they delve into the psychology of people at their most vulnerable. We've all felt the feelings before: lust, infatuation, insecurity, a yearning for more. Through romantic stories we are able to view the complicated nature of how we, as humans, embrace companionship or reject it. Is love real or imagined? Is there such a thing as 'the One', or does life hold many different possible partners, none of which are perfect or ideal? Are people really meant to spend their life with just one person? How does idyllic love measure up against the hard reality of seeing your partner once again leave hair all over the soap in the shower?
I was introduced to One Day through the movie. The movie version, to me, was a horrific superficial mess. I can honestly say that it was one of the most depressing and annoying romantic dramas I've ever seen. It featured a girl meeting a guy. The girl is obsessed with the guy; the guy is a flippant, self-absorbed prick. I spent most of the movie with my jaw hitting the floor, unable to understand what she saw in him. Two thirds of the way through, I turned it off. I just couldn't see anything there. I witnessed a selfish man fall to pieces, a doe-eyed woman following him all the while. I hated it. It was shallow. I was given no reason to care about these people, characters who seemed to be going out of their way to implode without reason, longing after each other without rationale.
Something was missing.
A Better Day
Then my girlfriend read it. Lo and behold, the novel seemed to have redeeming value. She shook it cutely in my face, said that I'd love it, said that I should read it. I was resistant, though, for quite a while. I presented my reasons for hating the characters. I explained why it was stupid for Emma to like Dexter at all. I pointed out how, if the movie was that godawful, how could the book do much better? But my girlfriend's responses threw me for a loop. It seemed like there was more depth, more reason, behind the actions of the characters than I had thought. They (*gasp*) had motivations beyond the surface level.
Really, I should have caved earlier. It seems ridiculously obvious. Of course the book would say more about the characters and the events of the story than the movie ever could. I just hated it so much. Perhaps it was Jim Sturgess. I don't know what it is about that actor, but I always get to a point where I really want to slap him, no matter what movie he's starring in. Alternatively, it could have been the cynical nature of the plot and what happens in it. No matter the reason, I tried it. And, while I can't say I loved every minute of it, reading it was infinitely more rewarding than I had expected it to be.
In brief, what makes One Day unique is its choice of how to tell the story. We can already assume that 'one day' these two, Emma and Dexter, will get together. But, instead of proceeding exactly chronologically like we might expect, David Nicholls only shows us where Emma and Dexter are at on the same day every year. The first chapter starts on July 15th, 1988. The next chapter is July 15th, 1989. This continues right up to the end of the novel. Thus every chapter skips an entire year of their lives.
This is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, this choice allows us to see these two people change over a great deal of time. It allows us to skip over a lot of unimportant details. And it gives us a snapshot of important moments in their lives, allowing us to see their victories, worries, and uncertainties from their early twenties to their forties. On the other hand, there are times where I felt like I had to make a leap of faith. Having a full year happen from one chapter to the next occasionally made it feel like I had missed too much. There are a few times where I was completely floored by how differently one of the characters was acting from one moment to the next. Granted, a lot can obviously happen in a year but, sometimes, it felt like I had no warning that something would occur.
But regardless of the premise, what made One Day really engrossing was the characters and what they go through. I feel like it is normal for authors to cultivate characters who are more admirable than the average person, people who we can aspire to become. But, in Dexter and Emma, David Nicholls creates two people that are so flawed, so human, that you pity them. It made me want to strike out and realize my dreams and desires because, for the greater part of the book, these two characters are completely unable to. Even at their happiest, they question whether there should be something better. They think of childhood dreams or the live-life-to-the-fullest philosophy of their college years, look at their present, and find it wanting.
Essentially, this book serves to slam the reader repeatedly with aggravatingly nasty and real existential questions. What happens if you discover that your lifelong passion isn't going to work out? What if the person you're with isn't the one you want? What if you just aren't ready to be a mother or father? What do you do if you continue disappointing your friends or family? What if you are too tempted to do something that you shouldn't? What if who you are is unrecognizable from who you think you should be? The questions go on and on and never relent. What results is a romantic story that is as poignant as it is realistic. It is subject to the caprices and unpredictability of life. And we see the ups and downs of their romance with others and each other, full of heightened passion at one moment and then merely comfortable and content the next.
Dexter and Emma
I'm trying to avoid spoilers, but I did want to touch on what makes the characters of Dexter and Emma so interesting to read about.
Dexter is a player. He's self-absorbed, happy-go-lucky, and always at his most charming. Constantly flirtatious, constantly pushing the limits, Dexter is the epitome of the social butterfly. This is a guy who you look at and think, “He must get all the ladies.” He does. He's got a zest for life that everyone wants to be a part of. His sheer confidence is hard not to admire.
However, he is also completely unable to figure out what to do long term. He lives in the moment to such an extent that he's unable to compensate for actual goals. Part of him thinks he shouldn't have to, that such a laissez faire attitude is so encouraged and embraced by society that he should be able to live like that forever. Part of him resents his parents, who believe that Dexter should be able to just decide on a career path and make it happen. Another part of him fears that he just doesn't have what it takes to be as successful in life like everyone else.
Emma, by contrast, models herself on being a productive, intelligent, and active woman in life. She's bookish and well-read. She makes constant references to classic literature and defines herself on her creativity and smarts. She's the woman you look at and think, “She has it all together.” She's capable, funny, self-deprecating, witty, and loving. She has heart and spirit, and the determination to use both, be it in her friendships or in the public sphere.
However, she is also hard on herself to the point of being a mess. Her self-image isn't there, and it's hard for her to think of herself as beautiful. Similarly, though Emma has the vigor for it, she doesn't believe that she is an interesting person. Her standards for herself are so high that she dooms herself to failure. She also lacks the confidence that she needs in order to be more assertive, both professionally and personally. She's shy and, when she fails to live up to where she wants to be, she attacks herself with such fury that she comes off as morose.
One question that I found myself asking continually throughout the novel was whether Emma and Dexter are good for each other. On the surface level, it's like asking if the smart creative quiet girl in the corner is a suitable match for the partyer prom king popular guy. It's a simplification but, just looking at the two, it's hard to pick out what they see in each other.
But, when you delve in further, there's more to it. I found myself thinking of two puzzle pieces. As mentioned just before, Dexter yearns for a solidity and responsibility that he can never seem to reach. Emma craves confidence, the freedom to recognize that she's beautiful, and a desire to be able to let go and have fun. In a sense, they fit together perfectly. Dexter is able to give Emma the release and wild adventure that she wants, just as Emma is able to give Dexter the focus and drive that he needs to succeed. Perhaps it is as simple as that. Opposites attract and, by offering one something that the other doesn't have, they complete each other.
Yet the novel doesn't leave it at that. It is one of the strengths of the book that it offers such depth and analysis of the characters and their relationship; we are never able to walk away and definitively say that, “Yes! Of course they're perfect together!” Though Dexter and Emma seem to complement each other well, they also aggravate the shit out of each other. Dexter lacks the drive to stay on top of current events or act responsibly, which Emma can't stand. On the flip side, Dexter is continually frustrated by Emma's inability to act with spontaneity or impulse. It teases at the quintessential relationship question: is it better to be with someone like you or somebody completely unique from you?
It's hard to say that I loved One Day. A good deal of it is goddamn depressing; it hits on the existential life questions with such bluntness and frequency that it's hard not to lash out at it and turn on a Disney movie. I self identify as someone who is passionately optimistic about life, and this book is written by someone who just isn't on that level. Yet that is not to say that it is all a downer. The chemistry and banter between Emma and Dexter is often invigorating and exciting. Similarly, though the ending is bittersweet, it does express hope for the future. Finally, I naturally was very much absorbed in the questions raised about the psychology of people in relationships and how relationships work. The teasing, the touch and go, the expectations and frustrations... This novel is extremely effective at nailing just about every phase of infatuation, love, break-up, and more. It is not the type of book that is about riding off together in the sunset, but it still captures enough sweetness about how we love each other for me to appreciate it for what it is. A story of two people, how their lives become embroiled together, and what happens when they dare to try their hand at loving each other. For that, it is worth the read.