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David Nicholl’s One Day in the Globe and Mail

The Daily Review, Thu., July 29

Deja vu all over again

Reviewed by Steven Hayward

Globe and Mail Update
Published Last updated 

The idea behind One Day, the third novel from British novelist David Nicholls, is as simple as it is ingenious and compelling: It shows us a young couple on their last day as undergraduates – the date is July 15, St. Swithin’s Day, which serves as a sort of British Groundhog Day when, if it rains, it means it’s going to rain for 40 more – and then it takes us back to the couple on that same day for the next two decades, to show us what has become of their lives and their relationship.

Most of what you need to know about the book can be summed up by teasing out the ambiguity of the title – “one day” – which can mean both a specific period of time (“we spent only one day together”) and also an indefinite amount of time (as in “one day my prince will come). This is the tragic-comic axis upon which the novel spins; we spend a series of single days with our lovers hoping that one day they will be happy.



Just as the plot of the novel has a recognizably Austenian shape to it, our couple bears more than a passing resemblance to their novelistic predecessors, the smart but poor Elizabeth Bennett and the rich but good Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Our heroine is Emma Morel (working-class, smart, plucky, political, sexy in a bad-glasses-no-makeup-I’m-not-trying sort of way) and our hero is Dexter Mayhew (upper-class, sort of stupid, somewhat insensitive, and, of course, almost impossibly handsome).

They’re opposites, but there exists between them an immediate and unbreakable amity, an irrational and indestructible friendship that hovers perpetually on the precipice of becoming something else, of either disintegrating or turning into an all-consuming love affair. Once this basic romantic machinery has been put in place, the novel does its work, chugging along on well-worn rails and in directions that are not wholly unpredictable.

The handsome Dexter becomes a middling TV presenter on British television who gropes his way through his 20s in an alcoholic haze; Emma, on the other hand, is underemployed and underappreciated, and often finds herself flirting with either despair or a guy who is completely wrong for her – and sometimes both.

Soon, however, our couple arrives in their 30s, and when that happens, they discover their positions are reversed. Dexter is out of work and, though he’s still usually the most handsome man in the room, his drinking and age have become serious impediments; Emma, on the other hand, is first a primary-school teacher and then a successful children’s novelist, and she becomes more attractive – stylish, less inhibited, richer – with each passing year.

The trouble with such a summary, of course, is that it makes the book sound schematic, a mélange of blockbusters: a spoonful of Groundhog Day, a cup of Four Weddings and a Funeral, a dash of multipart BBC miniseries, maybe a squeeze of Benjamin Button.

But it’s more that. One Day is a masterful piece of storytelling, eminently readable and absorbing. This is because the intelligence and grace of Nicholls’s writing infuses the novel with a degree of wit and pathos that makes it worth reading. It’s also a wonderfully funny book, full of one-liners and wry observations.

Here, for instance, is the satirical description of the resolutely handsome, somewhat superficial Dexter contemplating a woman he will eventually marry, on their first date:

“She was having a wonderful time, she said, but she didn’t like to laugh in company because she didn’t like what laugher did to her face. And although part of him felt a little chill at this, a part of him also had to admire her commitment.”

But it’s not just funny. There are sad parts as well. For those details, though, you’ll have to read the book. Be prepared for a few tears is all I’m going to say, stopping short of confessing to any myself.

Laughter and tears. What more can one ask of a good summer read?

Steven Hayward, author of The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke, divides his time between Toronto and Colorado Springs, where he teaches at Colorado College.

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