Book Review: One Day by David Nicholls

One Day by David Nicholls
Hodder and Stoughton, 2009.

I am not the target demographic of this piece of light fiction by most counts, but even so it passes the time amiably enough. The plot is an old chestnut: two Edinburgh undergraduates, one rich (Dexter) and one poor (Emma), don’t quite get it together on their final day before leaving university but recognise that they have a connection. The book covers their “will they, won’t they?” relationship over the next 20 years by focusing on each anniversary of that day to provide a snapshot of their lives over this time.

The author writes engagingly and is witty, which is just as well, because I don’t find the doings of 20-somethings in 1980s and 1990s London (mainly) that thrilling – having “been there, done that, got the T-shirt”. We see how feckless Dexter, who barely scraped a 2.2, falls straight into presenting a highly remunerative if shallow TV show immediately upon returning to England from an extended gap year, but becomes a total mess with partying, drugs etc; and we see how the politically correct and upright Emma, a first-class honours student, is reduced to waitressing in a chain Mexican restaurant, renting a box room with no windows from another college friend, while attempting to write.

After a few years (chapters), I almost lost it with the book because Dexter is so appallingly shallow that one could not be in the least interested in him, and Emma is just too much the downtrodden victim of life. One or two gems kept me reading, though – Emma’s hilarious attempt at writing a crime novel (and her other sporadic spurts of creativity) and Dexter’s fractious relationship with his parents, for example. Slowly, as time goes on, the two protagonists shift positions, Dexter becoming more mature and Emma more confident, almost despite themselves.

The format of the book, with each chapter covering the 15 July on successive years, is initially rather forced in that some pivotal event has to happen on that day so we have something to read about. The book matures with the characters, however, as the author changes the style sufficiently to keep the idea fresh while keeping to his chosen framework.

I did become quite interested in the relationship between Dexter and Emma in the final years as they both grew up and had to face up to personal problems that they had never anticipated and could not control – however, the dramatic ending, although sad and shocking, struck me as somewhat manufactured. The coda, covering the subsequent few years and also going back to the original date while Dexter and Emma were at university to provide a bit of context for how it all began, is a nice touch. What can I say in sum? The book (commercially very successful in the UK) is a pleasant read, with quite a few laugh-out-loud moments as well as the odd dose of genuine emotion.

I purchased my copy of this book.

Author’s website, including excerpt from the novel and the “mix” tape made by Emma. There is also information about the author’s other two books, Starter for Ten and The Understudy (neither of which I’ve read though my daughters enjoyed the film of the former).

There are 720 customer reviews of this book at Amazon (UK), average 4 (out of 5) stars, as well as lots of enthusiastic quotes from newspaper and magazine reviews. Other reviews/articles about the book are everywhere, but a couple can be read at: The Telegraph and The Guardian.

About the upcoming film of One Day.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: One Day by David Nicholls

  1. So it was not written by C.J. Box? 😉

    The book sounds different and interesting, on the other hand I can grow terribly tetchy when grown men think they are still teenagers so I won´t make up my mind just yet.

  2. Maxine – This one does sound like a different sort of book… Not sure about the whole “Will they, won’t they” question; that can be so very contrived. Still, this story does better than just that. I may give it a go.

  3. Thanks, Margot and Dorte. I only read this book because someone recommended it to me but I suppose I enjoyed it more than I thought I was going to. It isn’t the kind of book where you are really missing out by not having read it, though.

  4. I read this simply because it turned up on one of my book group lists and I certainly didn’t expect to enjoy it. However, there were one or two turns of phrase which every now and again made me smile enough to keep me going and in the end I was impressed almost against my better judgement by the way in which Nicholls manages to stay within his brief of the ‘one day’ without the structure becoming completely repetitive. I don’t know that I would go out of my way to read another book by him, but I didn’t consider the time spent with this completely wasted.

  5. I read this book in 2009 and kind of like it, but wasn’t crazy about it. I’m not sure why it’s so hot to point of big screen adaptation. I thought Dexter was irresponsible and shallow and Emma deserves better. Then the manufactured ending, and the story drag on after that horrible incident… that was a little too much to bear.

    Not sure why I kept thinking that Dexter and Emma studied in Bristol? I must have got this one and Starter for Ten all mixed up.

    I’m interested to read ‘Starter for Ten’ which is suppose to be good. Thanks for the review!

  6. Thanks, Annie and Jo – I think we all agree on this book! Jo – yes, it could have been “any university” I agree – but they do climb up to Arthur’s Seat so I suppose that counts for local atmosphere. That was about it, though – location and atmosphere are not this author’s strength, he is better on dialogue and acerbic humour. I can see why Nick Hornby (whom I’ve read) and Tony Parsons (whom I have not) recommend his books so much.

    • I read 3 of Tony Parsons’ books and I enjoyed them more than David Nicholls. I only read Juliet Naked by Nick Hornsby and quite put off by it. Maybe I should give him another shot.

      • I liked “About a Boy” and “How to be good” by Nick Hornby, the latter about a woman GP. I thought his first two books (the football one and the music one) that made his name were entertaining and original but I think he’s gone off somewhat nowadays – well, I lost it with him after the one about all the people who jumped off a building on the same day, did not even get as far as looking at Juliet Naked based on the subject matter.

  7. Unfortunately all I know of this book is what I learned from seeing the film trailer which gives away EVERYTHING (including the shock-ending) so I am not really inspired to read the book (or see the film frankly as I know what happens from start to finish).

  8. If the trailer gives that away, Bernadette (how bonkers is that?) then I agree it is certainly not worth reading the book, as there is not enough in it in terms of writing, characterisation etc to sustain it in the absence of a “plot”.

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