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One Day: the best novel ever – or a tedious schmaltz-fest?

September 15, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

David Nicholls’s acclaimed novel, tracking the 20-year friendship of Dexter and Emma, has sold more than a million copies and the film version is previewing in American cinemas. Two Telegraph writers reveal their passionate – and polarised – views on whether the book lives up to the hype.

Bryony Gordon, left, wanted to burn 'One Day'. Iain Hollingshead, right, found it heartbreaking - and very, very amusing - One Day: the best novel ever – or a tedious schmaltz-fest?

Bryony Gordon, left, wanted to burn ‘One Day’. Iain Hollingshead, right, found it heartbreaking – and very, very amusing Photo: CLARA MOLDEN

‘The greatest literary love of my life,’ says Iain Hollingshead

When I finished One Day, red-eyed in the early hours of a spring morning, I don’t think I read another novel for a couple of months. To have done so would have felt like a betrayal of the greatest literary love of my life.

Extreme? Yes. But David Nicholls’s third novel arouses polarising emotions. Despite remaining in the bestseller charts for more than 18 months, its 856 reviews on Amazon include 102 one-star refuseniks. The characters are unlikeable, they say, the plot clichéd, the ending a blessed relief.

They’re entitled to their misguided opinions, of course. But anyone with half a soul – sorry, Bryony – knows that One Day is the best British novel of the past 20 years.

Of course, a million people haven’t bought One Day for its clever structure. But it does allow Nicholls to romp through 20 years of the characters’ lives, from their last day at university to their early forties, the ever more curious reader trying to work out what went wrong and right in the intervening 364 days.

The detail of twentysomething life is pitch perfect, the post-university listlessness, the random travelling, the bad dates, the awful jobs, the misguided, scatter-gun ambition. And just as you’re happily gorging on this nostalgia fest, the reality of genuine grown-up life begins to bite: weddings, children, breakdown, divorce. It is, as Tony Parsons aptly puts it, “a brilliant book about the heartbreaking gap between the way we were and the way we are”.

One Day is undoubtedly heartbreaking. But it is also very, very amusing. Nicholls is one of the few writers billed as laugh-out-loud funny whom you’ll have difficulty reading in a public place. He is a master of irony, the genius of the set piece, a writer equally appealing to men as to women.

And yet this comedy never detracts from the two characters at the heart of the story. Dexter Mayhew, the public-school layabout turned minor television star, the embodiment of Nineties’ excess. Emma Morley, frustrated writer, Mexican restaurant waitress and teacher. Some critics have found them by turns arrogant, whiny and in urgent need of a kick up the backside, but Nicholls achieves the impressive feat of making them both everymen without resorting to stereotype.

It’s a very middle-class tale, of course. But what is wrong, after all, with having such a bright mirror held up to our own lives for once, instead of those of, I don’t know, vampires or the Nazis? We all know an Emma. Some of us know rather too many Dexters, a man who “had always expected Emma to be there, a resource he can call upon at any time like the emergency services”.

It is this will-they-won’t-they friendship that has turned the book from a hit into the super-league. It’s been done before, of course, most notably in When Harry Met Sally. But there is a whole new generation (I’m right in the middle of One Day’s 20‑year demographic) for whom the lines between friendship and relationships are blurred. Shared university corridors become shared flats. Friends become lovers and, sometimes, friends again. The luckiest ones end up marrying their friends.

One Day is hilarious, moving and relevant. It is also culturally astute, referencing everyone from Nina Simone to John Smith. On first entering Emma’s university bedroom, Dexter knows “with absolute confidence that somewhere in amongst the art postcards and photocopied posters for angry plays there would be a photograph of Nelson Mandela, like some dreamy ideal boyfriend”.

But perhaps more than all this – and without giving away the ending – it’s a warning, a rallying cry against atrophy, against procrastination, of putting life off in the hope that, one day, it happens to you.

Nicholls opens his book with a extract from Dickens’s Great Expectations. “Imagine one selected day struck out of it [life] and think how different its course would have been. Pause, you who read this, and think for a long moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on that memorable day.”

Go on, Bryony. Carpe that diem, and give it another read.

‘I almost threw it in the pool,’ says Bryony Gordon

I have never before wanted to burn a book, and I was once forced to read Coleen Rooney’s Welcome to my World for work. But One Day left me in such a state of profound irritation that I almost threw it in a pool. The only reason I carried on until the bitter end was because I was on holiday and had exhausted all other reading options.

“Why have you got a perma-snarl on your face?” my companion asked me, as I lay there grimacing at the latest chapter of Dexter and Emma’s tedious adventures.

I read obsessively but am not a literary snob; I’ll happily devour a Jackie Collins or Jilly Cooper. So my dislike of One Day is nothing to do with its lightness. Nor was it because it had been hyped to the hilt by the time I read it. I picked One Day up at Gatwick airport early in 2010, drawn in by its bright orange cover which said: “I am a perfect, brainless beach read – buy me!” So I did, a decision that would teach me once and for all never to judge a book by its cover.

It makes little sense to me that any sentient being would read One Dayand do anything other than gag; it is the literary equivalent of a box of doughnuts followed by a bag of Haribo, finished off with Cadbury’s Celebrations.

That a man as intelligent as my colleague Iain – a man with a first in history from Cambridge (or so he tells me) – could be reduced to tears by this schmaltz-fest leaves me deeply concerned for his fiancée. How he will help her through childbirth or even the simple task of assembling shelves, I have no idea. And if I am resorting to stereotypes then I do apologise: it is hard not to when talking about One Day.

Dexter and Emma are a couple so clichéd they seem to have been created in a chemistry lab with bromide. Dexter is supposedly charismatic and attractive to all, while Emma is the slightly frumpy, but clever girl who wants to save the world, preferably while falling in love with Dexter, who is busy turning into a TV presenter and cavorting with hot girls.

Dexter loves Emma, yet only as a friend. But – and there is a spoiler alert here – eventually he falls for her, though only once she has undergone a butterfly-style metamorphosis, and he has crashed and burned as a washed-out divorcé. Perhaps this is why so many men enjoy One Day – it gives them hope. You can act like a pig, because one day you can fall back on that clever bird from university.

I could find nothing likeable about Dexter or Emma – Emma, in particular, was only ever a page away from exploding in smugness. The whole thing seemed to be cobbled together from Nineties’ dramas such as This Life and Cold Feet, and it is no surprise to learn that David Nicholls used to write for the latter.

Perhaps I am a cold-hearted hag. Or maybe I’m professionally jealous.

By Iain Hollingshead and Bryony Gordon- 06 Aug 2011


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