David Nicholls’ One Day starts with Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley on their July 15, 1988 one-night stand as they both leave college. Then it visits them on July 15 for the next 20 years of coulda-shoulda-would close calls and false starts, from tragic near-misses to fortunate narrow escapes. The conceit is clever—here comes the 15th again, chapter after chapter, with life, loss, and love on fast-forward—but it’s beyond mere cleverness. The passing of time gives One Day a sense of sweep and scope that make it the emotional equivalent of a page-turning beach read.
Nicholls previously found humor in the aspirations and pretensions of the youth of Thatcher-era Britain in the more conventional, linear, simpler-and-soapier Starter For 10; One Day moves beyond ’80s pop and politics to the ’90s excitement of Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia and the colder, crueler England of the post-millennial present moment, where happiness is hard-won and fragile at the same time.
But Nicholls also digs past the Gen-X-goes-gray clichés. Dexter is an astonishing screw-up, and Nicholls does a rare thing in going past the familiar terrain of loveable roguishness and into more tricky territory as Dexter’s self-regard and self-loathing become toxically intertwined. Emma—dour, depressed, and slumping through the life she’s smart enough to understand, but not bold enough to change—begins to determine the shape of her own life, and Nicholls simultaneously roots for her happiness and remains conspicuously aware of how she herself might be the force keeping it from happening. By the book’s final chapters, it’s surprising how much Nicholls has made charming, callow Dexter (who has to learn to embrace responsibility) and decent, depressive Emma (who has to learn to let go of a few things) worth caring about.
One Day shamelessly lifts moments from English pop culture, some going back years (Nicholls admits the influence of Billy Bragg’s single “St. Swithin’s Day” in his selection of the date) and others going back decades: There are nods to Charles Dickens in the squalor of Dexter and Emma’s worst post-graduate jobs and moments in London, while the structural trick of the day in the life revisited over and over feels like something Harold Pinter would have tried. Like the reverse chronology of the doomed affair in Pinter’s Betrayal, One Day’s accelerated time-tripping works as a cold, clear kind of not-so-magical realism.
Still, Nicholls’ book isn’t just Nick Hornby does When Harry Met Sally with various bits of UK culture thrown in for local color and Philip Larkin-referencing cred. Nicholls himself credits Thomas Hardy’s Tess Of The d’Urbervilles with inspiring both his theme and tone, with the fast-forward flickering of the years going by giving the book’s everyday modern moments the breadth and depth of a more classically minded romantic epic. The omniscient narrator is dry and detached, bereft of either sympathy or scorn. Dexter and Emma’s inner monologues are fractured and real. The pop-culture and political details aren’t careless or casual, but they define both time and character. (The description of Emma’s student flat, to name one early, excellent example, starts as comedy and then perfectly sets the tone of the times and the woman who lives there.) Nicholls’ idea of one day over 20 years for two people is what makes One Day clever, to be sure, but the way Dexter and Emma’s journeys come to resonate is why One Day matters.