One thing is certain: David Nicholls is an adept humor writer. There are plenty of amusing moments and sharp one-liners to be found in “One Day.” Another mark in Nicholls’ favor is that he understands how complicated life can be. His characters screw up (sometimes repeatedly), do unlikeable things (and quite frequently), and so his novel is lifted above standard romantic comedy offerings. I can certainly see why so many people enjoy this book so very much. But if I’m being completely honest I must admit that I am not one of those people, despite the good points I just mentioned.
My main problem with this book is that Nicholls takes the disagreeable components of several characters a little too far. Dexter (or Dex, as he is frequently called) goes from being the person you like “in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek, love-to-hate kind of way” (in the words of his agent) to someone you (or at least I) can’t abide somewhere around the hundred page mark. It’s one thing that some of the minor characters are irritating, but it’s quite another when you just can’t stand one half of your romantic pair. Dex is the kind of self-involved, pleasure-seeking guy you are meant to love anyway because his charisma is winning and his heart, well, might just be filled with good intentions, even if they rarely-to-never get realized. He’s the kind of guy who would actually take the time to wonder that “he wasn’t sure that struggle suited him” when pondering a career path. Indeed, the only reason he wants a career at all is so that he can have a line to impress women with (and since “Hi, nice to meet you, I’m an astronaut” isn’t in the cards he’ll just have to fall back on television). This much is amusing, but when his self-absorption leads him to angrily think to himself that “he has better things to do” then be at his beloved mother’s deathbed, it goes too far.
Disclaimer time. I am not callous. I am well aware of how difficult it can be to deal with a parent’s serious illness because I have personal experience in the matter. I am also well aware of the fact that Dex thinking he has better things to do is meant to reflect his inability to emotionally process the impending death of his mother so soon after he has graduated from college. Here’s my problem with this: in the first hundred and fifty pages of the novel it becomes abundantly clear that Dex is meant to be on a long path to recovery. Not just from his own self-absorption, but from the more literal excessive drinking and drug use that begin to plague him immediately after graduation. OK, I have two problems with this–the first is that when things continue in the same vein I just wished he would hit rock bottom so we could get to the healing, already, but since there were still three hundred pages left it was apparent that absolute rock bottom was a ways off. By the time he gets left alone with a baby and predictably can’t keep away from the liquor cabinet I just wanted to throw the book across the room. The second, and much larger of my problems with this novel, is that it is clear that it is up to poor, sweet Emma to save him.
This isn’t, at heart, a story about Dexter and Emma–or it is, but only insofar as Emma is the only person with the capacity to affect real change in Dex. In the end, the love story in One Day is secondary to Dexter’s story. Emma is reduced to (eventually) acting as the vehicle for his recovery. So her story stagnates. She can’t fall in love, because if she did there wouldn’t be any room for Dexter in her life. Who, after all, needs so much unnecessary drama anyway? We are meant to believe that Emma can’t fall in love because she has already fallen, irretrievably, for Dex. I’m sure this point just screams to the romantic in a lot of readers that like this book. Well, I’m a romantic, too (believe it or not at this point), and this just didn’t do it for me. Emma’s total love for Dex is inexplicable. It doesn’t make sense. And I’m well aware that life itself rarely makes sense, but this went overboard to me. They have nothing in common. You can tell me that opposites attract as much as you want, and I will believe you, but I still won’t see how Dex and Emma could ever be considered a matched pair. And the fact that Emma is expected to wait around just to save Dexter when he’s ready isn’t romantic, it’s insulting.
I can’t discuss the ending here, but I will say that I found it to be extremely manipulative. I might have been more willing to forgive my complaints about this book had it ended differently. But I don’t want to give anything away for anyone who wants to read this book, so I will say no more.
If you are a fan of Nicholas Sparks you will probably love this. I have seen frequent comparisons to When Harry Met Sally, a movie that I absolutely adore, but I don’t think they hold true. Harry and Sally are clearly meant for each other, even when they bicker upon first meeting, and I see no such chemistry in Dex and Emma. There are also many comparisons to Same Time Next Year, but as I have neither seen the movie nor read the play I cannot say how they stack up.
As I said in the beginning, I can see why so many people have enjoyed this book and are undoubtedly looking forward to the movie version. I just don’t get it.