July 22, 2010

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One Day, by David Nicholls, 2010, Vintage, 437 pages.

I don’t read much fiction. It makes me cranky.

But this novel was climbing up the UK and American charts as a smart, funny beach read and I thought I could use a break from science and history. The Times of London liked it, the Guardian liked it, Nick Hornby liked it, and the Daily Mail reeled me in with “If you left college sometime in the eighties with no clear idea of what was going to happen next, or who your lifelong friends might turn out to be, this one’s a definite for your holiday suitcase.”

And it lived up to the hype. All the way up until page 382.

My personal recommendation, from the heart, is to read up to page 382 and stop. Everything after is like an alternate ending that should not have been chosen. You, of course, may disagree.

And of course you can’t really do that. You’re not going to stop and then never read the rest.

Anyway, the first 90 percent of the story did not make me cranky. It made me enjoy reading. I had a few quibbles, a few points I might raise for discussion were I reading this with a book group. Like: leopards, spots, changing — yes or no? And: are we to take this tale seriously as a view of human psychology or as more of a fantasy? And: If it’s a fantasy, is it a good one?

Whatever the answers to these questions, I would agree with Hornby’s blurb on the front cover calling One Day “fantastically readable.”

The title refers to the book’s setup of peering in on its characters, Emma and Dexter, on July 15 of each successive year after they graduate from college. Theirs is a never quite properly mutually requited romance, bound up in a real but rocky friendship. Sometimes we are peering in on Dexter’s life, sometimes on Emma’s.

You can read it as a chick-lit kind of thing — although at one point I wondered whether maybe it was guy-lit of a sort — but you can also read it as a “life happens” story, and that’s what I liked most: starting with the big dreams of two people on adulthood’s doorstep and watching what happens from there. Is there a moment when it’s clear that a Big Dream is not happening? Or does Big Dream only morph into something different? Does that still count? How do you know when you’re wasting your energy on something? How much is enough to get out of life? What is each of us supposed to get out of life?

The prose is bright, and somehow comfortable even when bad things are happening. Like a well-worn pair of jeans. It’s active but never tense.

And any new novel that doesn’t make me cranky until the last 10 percent is pretty good.

As for that last portion, I don’t know if I’m angrier about the sheer formula-ness of it or the particular content used in that formula.

OK, no, it’s the content.

It did seem to me like a bit of a cop-out, a way to avoid getting into those deeper questions because maybe the story is too lightweight for them.

But I can live with lightweight. I just don’t like the particular incarnation here. Unfortunately, it’s not how I would have chosen the fantasy to end. At all. I mean it made me seriously cranky.

But I think it was still worth it for that first 90 percent. And for you, maybe even all 100.

B — Lisa Parsons