Sunday, 16 January 2011

One Day by David Nicholls

I truly expected to love this book. It’s had great reviews which is how I found it initially and I’m only a few years behind the main characters, Emma and Dexter, as they graduate in 1988 and that’s the year I went to Uni. So I prepared for a nostalgic trawl through my teens and twenties, being able to identify with the protagonists and indulge a bit.

One Day begins in Edinburgh in July 1988 in Emma’s student flat. It’s St. Swithin’s Day, they’ve just graduated and to Emma’s surprise she’s finally managed to bag the handsome Dexter Mayhew, her crush through Uni and they’ve spend a night kissing and talking about what the future will bring. Emma Morley, hopelessly naive and chasing every good cause wants to make the world a better place, whilst Dexter has no great aspirations other than to be rich. The book follows almost twenty years of St. Swithin’s days charting the pair’s relationship. Their careers, families, friends, successes and dismal failures; they go from an almost romance, to best friends, falling out and finally marriage.
It takes a while for Emma, normal northern lass with a double first class degree to find her niche, going from a co-op Theatre in Education with a beaten-up transit and selection of misfits, waitress in a tacky Mexican restaurant, to the inevitable English and Drama teaching in a tough comp and finally popular author. She holds a candle for Dexter throughout a couple of dubious non-stick relationships and never seems to find anything that matches his sparkle.
Dexter has the rich-kid gap year and then by default, as he’s good looking and can read an autocue ends up as a yoof TV presenter, all estuary English and “big up”. He loves the party life and himself a bit too much, but a reliance on these props makes his career stall. A new girlfriend, Sylvie, helps clean up his act, but a brief marriage and a daughter later, Sylvie moves onto Dexter’s old Uni friend Callum. Another minor breakdown and finally the time is right for Dexter and Emma to get together.

Sadly, and I really did want to love it, it just didn’t do it for me. For once I do think some of my discontent could have been down to listening to the unabridged version of the audiobook, instead of reading the text. The female narrator was fine through most of it, but the majority of the female voices were all over done as "super bright shouty" voices which was intensely jarring and made it difficult to distinguish between characters in some scenes.  It also seemed that the word “really” was massively overused in the dialogue which also got on my nerves, but maybe the narrator just over emphasised it?!  The northern accent used for Emma wasn’t great and at times made her sound dim, rather than from Leeds, but I managed to get over that.
However, despite those “audio” complaints, I stuck to the end,but I became increasingly annoyed and irritated. I just didn’t like either Emma or Dexter enough to care. Emma starts out as a bit of an idealistic but well-meaning character who drifts through life. I didn’t engage with her, but she was inoffensive. Dexter was a different matter. He’s useless, self-pitying, self-indulgent and completely self obsessed. There’s nothing to like about him and although he did improve a little, I didn't feel that he really grew as a character.  There were times during Dexter’s twenties and when handling new baby Jasmine, that I was cringing. It was so painfully awful (and not in a good way) I couldn’t see why Emma had stuck with such an absolute lowlife as this. The number of occasions when he treats her badly, blatantly lies to her and others (within her hearing) and she still gives up the potential of happiness with Jean-Pierre in Paris for him – why?!
There were sections, particularly the early twenties that I did smile at and I identified with the descriptions of post-student life; the scrotty flats, no furniture and cheap posters. The bands, clubbing and restaurants brought back life in my twenties before the endless round of weddings and the new obsession with babies. I completely agreed with Emma’s take on being a surrogate “auntie”. Despite these impressively real flashes, the overall effect still left me a bit underwhelmed and mildly depressed. There wasn’t enough sugar to make it bittersweet for my my tastes; although I’d sussed very early on that the only way the book could end after twenty years was to have an unhappy ending and unlike some other people I preferred the simplistic, non-dramatic way this was handled, the final stages of the book seemed to rush through a tumult of grief and so I was glad when the whole thing had finished.
It’s well written, and it’s brilliant idea to take one day to illustrate the changes over years, but I felt it was a bit too self consciously clever and I just didn't connect or empathise with Emma and Dexter, it just wasn’t for me.