This is a remarkably unimportant novel; which is fair enough, but also a rather shallow, weightless novel, which isn’t.
Following the lives of two individuals who first meet in 1988, at the end of their college lives, Nicholls’ novel attempts to track the lives, loves and fates of two people who one assumes serve as a sort of embodiment or microcosm of their era —Thatcherite Britain and its aftermath.
I had the same problems with this book as I did with Audrey Niffeneger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, perhaps not coincidentally another book that was very successful and was eventually adapted into a movie. These problems were: lack of empathy and total predictability.
One Day is essentially a dual character study, but at no point did I really warm to, or at least conceive some degree of interest in Emma, to whom life seems to happen somewhat by happenstance, even when she achieves some measure of success, or Dexter, a self-absorbed child of privilege, a pale shade of similar characters to be found in the novels of Evelyn Waugh or Nancy Mitford (although one might argue that modern Britain itself is a sort of faded version of the era those writers lived in and wrote about). We are made privy to a great deal minutiae about their inner lives, but ultimately these feel like cues to the reader to identify with elements of the zeitgeist of a certain generation and, by identifying with the characters, or identifying them with people they know, do the hard work of characterisation themselves. A neat trick, but it didn’t really work with me.
Ultimately, even a fluffy novel has to make you feel invested in its narrative. At least for the time it takes to read the book in question, we care for Bertie Wooster’s latest lamebrained scheme, or for the fate of the Ringbearer’s quest.
Nicholls offers no compelling reason to care for his characters or their futures except that they’re there, living out their lives on page after page of this novel and we’re here, reading those endless pages. Just as bad, the story was predictable. The various travails and travels of the two characters, down to actual details like pillow talk and dead-end jobs, to say nothing of the eventual foregone conclusion were all strikingly self-evident from the first page.
About halfway through the book, at the 14th or 15th new plot development that I’d seen coming for pages in advance, I decided that this was one of those books that ideally reads itself, with the putative reader simply sitting passively and turning pages at regular intervals while the novel gleefully communes itself. To sum up, there’s some humour, some pathos, some bathos — a bit of everything, but not enough of any one thing, like a hastily assembled buffet lunch. And ultimately, haste is this novel’s metier.
It zips along nicely in that sort of unexceptionally readable prose that is the hallmark of the middling British writer and it’s perfectly conceivable to finish reading it, appropriately enough, in one day and then pass it on to your significant other. A day later, you could meet up over coffee to compare notes and find, as I have, that there really isn’t that much to say.