ONE DAY by David Nicholls
April 9-10, 2011
8.5 out of 10
(simply for some profanity that grated on me at times)
Books entice me in many different ways. Sometimes I’m drawn by a cover alone, and other times I am compelled to read something based on a critical review or word of mouth. Most of the time it’s a combination of appealing cover art plus a quick read of the book’s premise. But I’m always a choosy reader. Especially in the past few years when books were not even on the back burner but housed somewhere in the dark recesses of my entertainment pantry, I’ve been very discriminating about which books I choose to invest my time. Even the large collection of previous acquisitions that filled my shelves has not enticed me in recent years. But One Day has changed all of that.
I first read a review of One Day in Entertainment Weekly, my usual go-to for new titles and reviews, and I was immediately enchanted. What’s not to love about a love story between best friends that is told chronologically on a single date (July 15th) over the span of their relationship? The tool of making each chapter a recounting of that particular date over a twenty-year period was inventive enough to make me interested, and the fact that it was a story of friendship above all else pierced my heart immediately. I purchased it last year when I was first developing my own little novella of a long-term friendship that floats between platonic, familial, and romantic, and I had just made the decision to tell my story in segments with gaps between the years. That someone had beaten me to the idea and published it didn’t even irritate me. Instead, I couldn’t wait to pick it up and begin. Of course, I fell back into my non-reading routine before I actually did pick it up, but it’s been sitting on my bookshelf since July of last year, constantly reminding me of its presence and beckoning me to just begin.
So I did. This past Saturday, for the Spring Read-a-Thon, this little story of a huge friendship was my first choice for the full day of reading that I planned. I had backups, of course, but once I began reading, there was simply no putting it down. One Day is magnificent for its lack of pretense and plainspeak. The author’s words are often jumbled and rambling and free of pauses, and reading them is like seeing my own patterns of thought in print. And because the language is so unconstrained, the experience of the novel is similar to listening to a couple tell their own personal story over the course of a long, lazy winter’s day — a story full of anecdotes and history and pop culture references that detail what it was like for my generation to grow up in the 80s and 90s. To say I was mesmerized is inadequate, but I felt so connected that I cannot even think of a word to encompass the feeling. Not even a predictable and clichéd happening in the final section of the book was able to take away the extraordinary experience of this novel.
One Day is notable to me for another big reason, as well. Throughout my reading I was inspired for my own work-in-progress. Good books are meant to do that, of course, but I haven’t felt such urgency from a reading experience in many, many years. This time, I made notes of language, of cadence, of boundaries that could be pushed and barriers that need not exist in my own creative process. I was inspired as a writer and not just as a reader. And that is a bonus I never expected.
She had once studied fashion in London but these days ran a village antiques shop, selling expensive rugs and chandeliers to genteel Oxford with great success. She still carried with her that aura of having been something-in-the-Sixties — Dexter had seen the photographs, the clippings from faded colour supplements — but with no apparent sadness or regret she had given this up for a resolutely respectable, secure, comfortable family life. Typically, it was as if she had sensed exactly the right moment to leave the party. Dexter suspected that she had occasional flings with the doctors, lawyers, the people who spoke on the radio, but he found it hard to be angry with her. And always people said the same thing — that he had got it from her. No-one was specific about what ‘it’ was, but everyone seemed to know; looks of course, energy and good health, but also a certain nonchalant self-confidence, the right to be at the centre of things, on the winning team.
Even now, as she sat in her washed-out blue summer dress, fishing in her immense handbag for matches, it seemed as if the life of the Piazza revolved around her. Shrewd brown eyes in a heart-shaped face under expensively dishevelled black hair, her dress undone one button too far, an immaculate mess. She saw him approach and her face cracked with a wide smile. (Chapter Two: “Back to Life”, pg 28)
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She owns furniture. At twenty-seven she is too old to live like a student anymore, and she now owns a bed, a large wrought-iron and wicker-work affair bought in the summer sales from a colonial-themed store on the Tottenham Court Road. Branded the ‘Tahiti’ it occupies the whole bedroom of her flat. The duvet is goosedown, the sheets are Egyptian cotton which is, the saleswoman informed her, the very best cotton known to man, and all of this signifies a new era of order, independence and maturity. On Sunday mornings she lounges alone on the Tahiti as if it were a raft, and listens to Porgy and Bess and Mazzy Star, old Tom Waits, and a quaintly crackling vinyl album of Bach’s Cello Suites. She drinks pints of coffee and writes little observations and ideas for stories with her best fountain pen on the linen-white pages of expensive notebooks. Sometimes, when it’s going badly, she wonders if what she believes to be a love of the written word is really just a fetish for stationery. The true writer, the born writer, will scribble words on scraps of litter, the back of bus tickets, on the wall of a cell. Emma is lost on anything less than 120gsm.
But at other times she finds herself writing happily for hours, as if the words had been there all along, content and alone in her one-bedroom flat. Not that she’s lonely, or at least not very often. Instead she visits independent cinemas and galleries with friends…. At twenty-seven, Emma wonders if she’s getting old. She used to pride herself on her refusal to see two sides of an argument, but increasingly she accepts that issues are more ambiguous and complicated than she once thought. Shouldn’t she have an opinion, take a side, boycott something? At least with apartheid you knew where you stood. Now there’s a war in Europe and she has personally done absolutely nothing to stop it. Too busy shopping for furniture. (Chapter Six: “Chemical”, pp 114-115)
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But to just look at someone, to just sit and look and talk and then realise that it’s morning? Who had the time or inclination or energy these days to stay up talking all night? What would you talk about? Property prices? She used to long for those midnight phone calls; these days if a phone rang late at night it was because there had been an accident, and did they really need more photographs when they knew each other’s faces so well, when they had shoeboxes full of that stuff, an archive of nearly twenty years? Who writes long letters in this day and age, and what is there to care so much about?
She sometimes wondered what her twenty-two-year-old self would think of today’s Emma. Would she consider herself self-centered? Compromised? A bourgeois sell-out, with her appetite for home ownership and foreign travel, clothes from Paris and expensive haircuts? Would she find her conventional, with her new surname and hopes for a family life? Maybe, but then the twenty-two-year-old Emma Morley wasn’t such a paragon either: pretentious, petulant, lazy, speechifying, judgmental. Self-pitying, self-righteous, self-important, all the selfs except self-confident, the quality that she had always needed the most.
No, this, she felt, was real life, and if she wasn’t as curious or passionate as she once had been, that was only to be expected. It would be inappropriate, undignified, at thirty-eight, to conduct friendship or love affairs with the ardour and intensity of a twenty-two-year-old. Falling in love like that? Writing poetry, crying at pop songs? Dragging people into photo booths, taking a whole day to make a compilation tape, asking people if they wanted to share your bed, just for company? If you quoted Bob Dylan or T.S. Eliot or, God forbid, Brecht at someone these days they would smile politely and step quietly backwards, and who would blame them? Ridiculous, at thirty-eight, to expect a song or book or film to change your life. (Chapter Eighteen: “The Middle”, pp 381-382).
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He eats supper with the television on, hopping channels and restricting himself to the solitary beer that came free with the delivery. But there’s something saddening about eating alone, hunched over the sofa in this strange house and for the first time that day he feels a rush of despair and loneliness. These days grief seems like walking on a frozen river; most of the time he feels safe enough, but there is always the danger that he will plunge through. Now he hears the ice creak beneath him, and so intense and panicking is the sensation that he has to stand for a moment, press his hands to his face and catch his breath. (Chapter Twenty-One: “Arthur’s Seat”, pg 416)