Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 2.5 stars
Date begun: March 22nd, 2011
Date finished: March 23rd, 2011
One Day follows the two protagonists, Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew for twenty years, starting on the day of their graduation from University in Edinburgh in 1988. The "gimmick" is that only once every year, on the 15th of July, do we get to see how they're doing.
Emma is Northern, bookish, a bit gawky and very passionate about a number of worthy causes. She graduates with top results in English lit and drama, but is uncertain of her future prospects and feels dowdy and insecure. Dexter is a former public school boy from Oxford, handsome, confident, sometimes arrogant to the point of douchiness and graduated with a middling result in anthropology. He's not really passionate about anything but his own enjoyment and maybe women, and quite ready for the wonderful things the world is sure to offer him after graduation, they'll certainly involve fame and fortune.
The couple have clearly run in the same circles at University but hook up for the first time at a party on the eve of their graduation. Emma has clearly fancied Dexter for some time, he's only really noticed her at the party. The book follows their lives for the next twenty years, during which they develop a close friendship, sometimes spending the day together, sometimes far apart. They both change a lot, get a series of jobs (some satisfying and rewarding, some decidedly not so) and various partners. At times, they are best friends, at others they are not on speaking terms. There's a fair bit of sexual tension between them, and even in periods where they're just good friends, it's clear that everyone around them always saw them as a successful romantic coupling just waiting to happen.
Due to the episodic structure of the book, I kept wanting to read just one more chapter, even when at times, I didn't really like Dexter much or care what was going on in his life. Dexter is a bit too full of himself, and while he's clearly supposed to be the sort of charming rogue you love to hate, but are mostly charmed by, in parts of the book he just seemed smug and spoiled and annoying. Emma's a great character, though, and not just because she's a smart and caring woman with confidence issues who just doesn't realize that she could be really very pretty if she wasn't so sure everyone was lying about her looks. I sometimes felt that she cut Dexter a lot more slack than she should have, and possibly told him more often that he needed to get over himself.
The book is in some ways like a literary version of When Harry Met Sally, the film is even referenced at one point in the book. It's just that in this, Emma is vastly more likable than Dexter (who in many ways reminded me a bit too much of a couple of guys I went to Uni with, and who clearly expected the world to fall in their lap because they were handsome and charming, but didn't really want to work very hard at anything), and it's sometimes a bit difficult to see why she'd put up with him for twenty years. He does have personal growth, but it takes a very long time, and even after he became a proper grown-up, I found the end of the book unsatisfying and am not entirely sure Nicholls had to choose the route he did to complete Dexter's transition into a decent human being. Still, it was a quick read, I enjoyed bits of it a lot, and since I didn't invest too much in it, I probably won't care as much if the upcoming film adaptation changes bits or gets them wrong.