Monday 21 November 2011

Two Readers; One Day

So, Claire (Paperback Reader) and I had both read One Day by David Nicholls, along with seemingly everyone else in the world, and we both wanted to put up posts on it.  But we thought it might be fun to do something a bit different.  We're having a real-time conversation via email, and will post the results on both our blogs... hopefully it'll have the feel of a book group, but with the bonus that we can edit ourselves to sound better!  For a conversation covering not only One Day but Thomas Hardy, Mr. Darcy, and what constitutes good writing - read on!

SIMON: Hi Claire!  Hope you're well?

CLAIRE: Hi Simon, I am well, thank you.  Funnily enough, I was watching something that provoked me into thinking about missed connections/potential but interrupted moments, which was the essence of One Day, in my opinion.  I found those "what if?" and *nearly* sections of the novel both frustrating and emotive; I think we can all identify with them on some level.  What do you think?

SIMON: Good point.  I suppose, in outline, One Day is fairly inevitable - we know the lives of Dexter and Emma are going to overlap after their day/night together at the end of university - otherwise there wouldn't really be any point to the novel.  So Nicholls had to lace it all with will-they-won't-they moments, near-misses and misunderstandings etc.  I suppose One Day could borrow that 'only connect' mantra from Howards End - it's about two people trying, and repeatedly failing, to connect with each other.  I was worried it would feel too gimmicky, the concept of coming back to each of them on the same day every year - or too full of coincidences - do you think it was?

CLAIRE: I felt it was very contrived.  The anniversary of when they met happened to be the same date as all of those key moments in their relationship and [the big spoiler at the end!]? Really?  Life is full of coincidences but I think that Nicholls took the gimmick too far.  I agree though that it is about two people trying -and failing- to connect with each other.  I think that the reason I found it so frustrating is that those near-misses and misunderstandings are such an integral part of life and something we have all fell victim to at some point ... I felt that Emma and Dex's relationship was hopeless/futile and that these connections are so often outwith our control/at the whim of fickle fate and a bitchy traveller who steals other people's books!

Your allusion to Howards End reminds me of the tribute the book made to Tess of the D'Ubervilles and Hardy; it's been so long since I read Tess (and I have a hopeless retention for key plot details) but what was the relevance between it and One Day?

SIMON: Oh gosh, now you're testing me... The letter goes missing under the carpet in Tess, maybe that?  Can't see much of a link between the two, myself.  Nor did I find One Day as contrived as I'd thought it might be - because big events were recalled, rather than all happening on July 15th.  But I agree that The Big Spoiler Moment happening on the same date as their meeting was a coincidence too far…

Whilst we're on intertextual references - I was chuffed to see what Emma had on her bedside table at the beginning of the novel.  Now I can't remember what they all were (argh!) but I do know that I'd read them all - there was Milan Kundera, maybe a Muriel Spark?  It certainly made me like Emma, at the start at least.  I'm easily won over like that.  How sympathetic did you find Emma and Dexter, and did it change as the novel progressed?

CLAIRE: That sounds about right; I knew it was something about miscommunication/confessions going astray!  I did think it was clever that we were told rather than saw some of the key moments in their relationship as everything occurring on July 15th would have been ridiculous,

I was delighted by the intertextual references - we do love our books about books!  I took note of this wonderful quote about Muriel Spark. 
But at the best of times she feels like a character in a Muriel Spark – independent, bookish, sharp-minded, secretly romantic.
I certainly warmed to Emma, at the start, due to her love of books; however, both she and Dexter grated on my nerves throughout and not just because of their ineptitude in getting together.  My sympathies towards Dexter changed as the novel progressed, as I found Dexter became more sympathetic, but, conversely, Emma became an unsympathetic character. Regrettably, Emma was far from the Muriel Spark character that she professed to be. Ultimately, I didn't like either of them very much- did you?

SIMON: There were definitely moments when I couldn't imagine Dexter being any more loathsome.  The period where he was constantly on drugs, doing appalling television, feeling self-important and neglecting Emma - I just wanted her to high-tail it outta there.  I found this quotation, from that year, one of the most moving in the book:
"Dexter, I love you so much. So, so much, and I probably always will." Her lips touched his cheek. "I just don’t like you anymore. I’m sorry."
I think the conflict between loving and liking someone (romantically or otherwise) is something with which we can all identify.  Nicholls phrases it so simply there - and since it comes at the end of a long scene where Dexter has proved unbearably awful, and Emma has tried so hard, I found it really powerful.

But I came out the opposite of you - by the end, I liked them both.  Eventually I even warmed to Dexter!  How important do you think sympathising with characters is in One Day?

CLAIRE: Oh, that's interesting.  He was loathsome but I think as the novel -and the years- progressed I understood Dexter more; I think he was an addict, which, as I said above, made him more sympathetic to me.  Emma, I thought, was dissatisfied/unfulfilled and although that made me sad it also made me find her a little... fickle; once she had Dex she still wasn't happy and it was inevitable that their story had a tragic ending (spoilers galore! I think that there is a statute of limitations, especially on a book that is everywhere. Mwah ha ha).  I found it sad that as a thirty-eight year old Emma was so disillusioned by love and far removed from her twenty-two year old self.

Normally I do not have to sympathise, or even like, characters in order to enjoy a book but with One Day I think it hampered my enjoyment.  Although I liked it well enough I did not love it.  I needed to be more invested in their story, to will them together, but I didn't care enough about them; Em/Dex are not the star-crossed lovers of our generation.  Do you agree?

SIMON: I had a fairly odd relationship with the novel - in that, whilst I was reading it, I loved it.  I raced through it on holiday - and you know me and long books; it doesn't often work.  But almost as soon as I finished it, I started doubting myself.  Had I really liked it as much as I thought?  Was it actually a very good novel?  I did care about the characters - I must have done, to make me find it so compelling.  But afterwards I started to think - is Nicholls a good stylist, for example, or simply good at making a novel pacy?  (Is there a difference?!)

CLAIRE: I think there is a difference.  I similarly found it compelling-and we have established it wasn't due to my love for the characters- but I think it suffered from undue hype.  Surely to be classed as an epic love story of our times, we have to be more engaged and invested?  Mr Darcy doesn't start out as likable but, oh my, is his and Lizzie's story compelling.  One Day was absorbing and it absorbed me for more than one day but I don't understand why so many people love it/cry over it.  I saw the tragic moment coming, although it did make me gasp a little.  However, I don't think that really answers your question.  It was a good read but not a good book, if you see the same difference as I do? 

SIMON: That's exactly it!  Except I might be a trifle more generous and say it was a great read but not a great book - it might just sneak into 'good book' territory for me.  I have a feeling that those who wept/cheered over One Day either have had close experiences, or have yet to read Pride and Prej etc. (or my favourite romantic couple, Jane/Toby in The L-Shaped Room.) 

CLAIRE: I will temper my comment by saying it was a good read but not a great book (that seems fairer and more truthful to my own feelings).  I hate to say it (well, not really) but I think that as far as mainstream love stories go, Emma and Dexter, are fitting but they were too close to ... human for me; I prefer my love stories either more romantic/idyllic or far grittier (of which polar opposites both of your examples fit).  Emma and Dexter’s story was distinctly average.

SIMON: Like you, I more or less saw the tragic end coming.  That's one moment which I thought the film did extraordinarily well - and I wished I hadn't known it would happen, because it was quite a shocking moment of film.

Ah, the film.  Let's swap our reading glasses for our cinema specs for a mo - first off, who would you like to have played Emma and Dexter?  I would have loved Emma to be Romola Garai, which was only enforced by seeing her in a smaller role in the film.

CLAIRE: I haven't seen the film (I know!)  I meant to... then all the criticism of Anne Hathaway's shifting accents deterred me.  Did you find though while reading it that you had the cast in your mind's eye?  I always find it hard to re-imagine a character once they have been imagined for me onscreen.  I love Romola Garai, however, and think she would have made a lovely -and altogether more sympathetic- Emma; as for Dex, I'm not sure... somebody that does cad and endearing/vulnerable/messed up male well. 

SIMON: I never visualise characters when reading, so I was pretty open to any actors, visually at least.  Gotta say, I'd never heard of Jim Strugess before One Day, but he was a brilliant Dexter.  Dexter's more annoying phases were played with an undercurrent of embarrassment, so that he never felt quite as loathsome as he did in the novel.  Anne Hathaway... oh, Anne, I love you normally, but that accent was beyond dreadful.  Most of the time she was vaguely British, and then she would lapse into ee-by-gum Yorkshire.  No, Annie, no. 

CLAIRE: I've seen Jim Sturgess in a film before and thought he was well cast (not seeing how he actually comes across onscreen though, I can't judge if I was correct.)

SIMON: We've not really covered all the other characters... have to admit, Emma's boyfriend Ian made me feel very uncomfortable - mostly because I kept wondering how similar he was to me!  I'm totally the guy who makes jokes all the time, whatever the tone of the situation...  What did you think of Ian and Sylvie, as the substitute partners for Emma and Dexter?

CLAIRE: Ian made me very uncomfortable too; he started off sweet and self-deprecating and then became quite scary.  I don't think you should be at all concerned of being the same as him, Simon!  He had his insecurities and was obviously very much in love with Emma; I did think it was good of Nicholls to bring him back for Dexter in end, which redeemed his character.  Sylvie never really rang true for me; she was quite one-dimensional and what was with her family?!  The Sylvie of early Dexter/Sylvie and the Sylvie at the end of their marriage were disparate but, then, people and relationships evolve/devolve.  Neither character was a fitting substitute character, I thought, but acted as a foil to the "meant to be" partner.

SIMON: Sylvie's family were ghastly, weren't they?  'Are you there, Moriarty?' sounds like the worst game ever, and I usually adore silly family games.  I wish Nicholls had made her a little more believable, as a person Dexter would have picked.  Ditto swarthy French bloke, for Emma.

I suppose we should be drawing this discussion to an end, since it should take up less than one day(!) - can I just say, though, what fun it's been, Claire!  I hope the readers enjoy the format (shameless plug for 'we love you guys' comments!)  Perhaps we can just sum up our thoughts in one or two sentences?

CLAIRE: It's been a pleasure, as always!

Hm, one or two sentences?  One Day was a book about missed opportunities and failed connections and, regrettably, it failed to connect with me.

SIMON: Nice!  Ok, my turn.  One Day felt like a great read one day, a good read the next day, a mediocre film a later day, and a great conversation today!


  1. What a delightful discussion! I really enjoyed One Day when I read it (and yes, I cried) but I can't say it's a book I feel much need to ever go back to. I did spend the second half of the book feeling shocked by how fond I'd grown of Dexter.

    As for the movie...what to say? I thought Jim Sturgess was an excellent Dexter and the best thing about the film. Anne Hathaway as Emma was just embarassing to watch (and, more importantly, listen to). If only they had cast Romola as Emma!

  2. What a great idea for a post. Unfortunately I really disliked this novel and have not seen the film, though I might yet. So I'm rather more on Claire's side.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this debate, and I do take on board the 'good read/great book' distinction. But I have read 'One Day' twice, which is something I often do with 'good reads' and I enjoyed it even more the second time, almost laughing out loud (had to stop myself I was in the members' room at the RA!) at the 'Are you there, Moriarty' scene and wiping a tear at the end. And I defended 'One Day' at a recent Persephone meeting, to me, the book reminds us to 'carpe diem', something that (when you get to my age) you realise you've failed to do.
    The film---Rafe Spall was brilliant as Ian, such a touching character. And Rebecca Hall (have you seen her in Starter for Ten?)should have been cast as Emma, in my view!

  4. What an interesting review! I heard the movie was bad and I def. won't be reading the book because I think it would end up making me cry. I got SO frustrated with Tess that I never could bring myself to read one of Hardy's books again.
    Thanks for sharing about the story though! It does sound true to life, unfortunately.

  5. Nice exchange. I haven't read the book or seen the movie, so I appreciated hearing a little from both sides.

  6. What a fun idea! Sadly, I didn't think too much of the book. I found Nicholls' other book, Starter for 10, a lot more fun.

  7. You never visualize characters, Simon? I can't stop it from happening!

    Hopefully you and Claire team up again, it's a lot of fun to 'hear' you both banter back and forth.

  8. Yeah, lots of feelings in common, and I'm totally on board with the great read/alright book consensus. Quite tellingly, now I've blogged about it I'd be quite happy to give it away, which is not something I do with books I love.


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