One Day

It was raining earlier, so deciding that we’d wait it out, I’ve just returned from a late trot round the park with Alice. Rarely have I needed a walk so badly as a result of reading a book.

I’ll come back to that in a moment, but first a quick reminder that there’s just one day left to submit to my anthology Transtories

But back to why I needed that walk.

I’d just read One Day by David Nicholls, and found myself shocked by the violence of my emotional reaction; walking Alice round the park meant that I had a chance to work out my thoughts about why I’d gotten so upset.

But first, a warning.  There is a major spoiler following, and while I’m not normally reluctant to reveal twists if they’re germane to the ending, this would actually destroy the very effect I’m trying to explain – SO FINISH READING NOW if you don’t want to know what happens.

The plot of One Day revolves around the long-term love affair between Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley, students in Edinburgh who share a one- night stand after their graduation ceremony on St. Swithin’s Day, 1988 (that’s July 15th, for those of you who don’t know the legend). The novel charts their anniversary over the next nineteen years – usually they spend it together, but sometimes just write to each other.

Because by 1989 Dexter and Emma have gone their separate ways: Emma finds her ambitions worn down by life in the late 80s and 90s; she takes up acting, in an interactive drama troupe, then gets a dead end job in a fast food chain, before training as a teacher. Dexter drifts through life on charm, before blagging his way into the media on the strength of his looks.

In the late 90s Dexter’s fall from grace as a TV presenter is as sudden as his rise, while Emma quits her teaching job after an abortive affair with her headmaster. Dexter marries while Emma lives alone, but they continue to see each other each year, and there is never any doubt that love will prevail in the end.

Are you still reading? Didn’t I tell you to stop? Okay, on your head be it…

Dexter finds that his wife is cheating on him, and the following year Emma is shocked by how gaunt he looks after his marriage implodes. Emma by this time is a successful children’s novelist living in Paris, but realizing that this may be their last chance, she leaves her boyfriend to return with Dexter, helps get him back on his feet, and they marry on St Swithin’s Day, 2003.

So far, so contemporary romance; I know exactly where this is heading, except that there are still sixty-five pages to go, and there must be another twist. Sure enough life’s not so good by 2004; Dex and Em are trying for a baby, and they quarrel, and they arrange to meet in the evening to celebrate their anniversary – it’s a working day in the shop for Dexter, while Emma tries to write, goes swimming and heads for home:

The rain became heavier, oily drops of brown city water, and Emma rode standing on the pedals with her head lowered so that she was only vaguely aware of a blur of movement in the side road to her left.

The sensation is less of flying through the air, more of being picked up and hurled…the people crouching over her seem fearful and are asking her over and over again are you alright are you alright. One of them is crying and she realizes that she is not alright….

Then she thinks of Dexter…he’ll wonder where I am, she thinks. He’ll worry….

Then Emma Mayhew dies, and everything that she thought or felt vanishes and she is gone forever. (pp.384 – 385) 
I’m a little embarrassed now at how much I mourned a fictional character. It took me several minutes to be able to pick up the book again, and continue, now in a very emotional state, reading what happens over the last fifty pages. Which is not at all what I expected — but I won’t tell you, because you’ve had enough spoilers for now.

All writers manipulate their readers, but Nicholls is extremely adept, while I had some personal hot buttons which Nicholls pressed. Dex and Em are depicted in all their beautiful and awful detail, and Emma reminded me so much of my ex, while the sheer shock of the accident only adds to its verisimilitude; if TV has one massive failing it’s (generally) telegraphing plot twists through the soundtrack.

The strength of the novel (and the point of this rather rambling post) is that you may think that you know what’s coming, but life doesn’t give you spoiler alerts.

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• March 31st, 2011 • Posted in Books • Comments: 0