It starts with a fling; a hazy one night stand between two vague acquaintances on 15th July 1988. The room is filled with the smell of smoke, the pair are hungover, and it’s the day of their graduation. They lie in a room with half-empty wine glasses, condoms and left-over joints surrounding them, and casually speculate about the future, about where they’ll be in twenty years’ time. It’s hardly a scene from Romeo and Juliet, but perhaps it’s a modern day romance, of sorts. Or perhaps not.
We revisit Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew on St Swithin’s Day every year for the next two decades, and we are shown how their lives entwine, how their friendship develops and - ultimately - how experiences shape and change them, for better or worse. And all this with a powerful injection of wit; take Dexter’s colleague who only speaks in capitals and whose favourite phrase is “WAHEY!”, for example, and Emma’s comedian boyfriend Ian, a head-in-hands unfunny man, whose face reminds Emma “of tractors” and who walks around the house in his “tracky botts”.
One Day is much-praised for its unique narrative concept; a structure which, with credit to David Nicholls, does not become wearing at all. The real charm, though, comes from the characters - their realness, their plausibility: because everyone knows an Emma Morley, or a Dexter Mayhew. A free-spirited, independent, working-class lefty who takes herself and her views on literature and politics very seriously and has a grudge against the world; and, the polar opposite: a handsome, popular and apolitical womaniser from a wealthy family who wants “to live life in such a way that if a photograph were taken at random it would be a cool photograph”.
And this is the beauty of this book; it is the authenticity of the two main characters, moreso than the unusual structure, the humorous prose or even the twisting plot, which lingers long after the last page. In creating characters we can all relate to, in some way at least, the impressively observant One Day not only appeals to any reader in some way, but offers something deeper.
Indeed, although disguised as a laugh-out-loud coming-of-age drama with a hint of romance and rather a lot of sex, drugs, brilliant characters and wild parties, David Nicholls has, again, done what he does best; as with Starter for Ten, he’s taken a powerful message about today’s society - about prejudices, class barriers and regional divides, about loneliness and bright-eyed youthful aspirations succumbing to middle-aged acceptance - and has interwoven it so subtly in the text that you could reach the end without realising that what he has to say goes deeper than the comedic and, at times, touching, journeys of the protagonists.
In creating characters the reader can relate to, Emma and Dexter’s friendship becomes a microcosm of society and the opportunities we each have, the paths we take partly through choice and partly through compulsion. The novel begins with the pair leaving university as supposed equals, both with a degree and both with the idea that they can do anything they want to. Fast forward to 1991, though, and with Dexter living in a glamorous London apartment and working as a TV presenter after travelling the world for two years while Emma is a waitress in a cheap Tex-Mex restaurant and struggles to pay the rent, and some of what Nicholls wants to portray becomes alarmingly clear.
But it is not all serious; indeed, it’s hardly serious at all: it is secretly deep, with a read-between-the-lines kind of subtlety. This is a book, really, about friendship, about love, about the ups and the downs of life, and about coming-of-age in modern Britain - and it makes for a funny, addicting and actually quite profound read.