Review: In 1988, the day after commencement, two college graduates briefly, romantically collide. The girl has pined for the boy for years; the boy is more aware of the girl than he lets on. She’s an earnest, outspoken lefty, he a handsome, apolitical toff who “liked the word ‘bourgeois’ and all that it implied” and “wanted to live life in such a way that if a photograph were taken at random, it would be a cool photograph.” Their chemistry is as inarguable as their differences, but because of the pride, carelessness and misplaced optimism of youth, they let time and distraction separate them. Yet they never lose track of each other. “One Day” checks in on their intersecting lives once a year, every July 15, from 1988 through 2007.
The trajectories of Emma’s and Dexter’s lives will resonate with many American readers, even though the couple’s relationship begins at the University of Edinburgh and their adulthood takes root in London. With pleasing precision, Nicholls tags cultural touchstones that will be familiar to college graduates on both sides of the Atlantic. For the late 1980s, he resurrects a faultless diorama of the activist female student mentality, in the form of Emma’s cluttered bedroom. Entering it for the first time, Dex knows “with absolute confidence that somewhere in amongst the art postcards and photocopied posters for angry plays there would be a photograph of Nelson Mandela, like some dreamy ideal boyfriend.” He had seen “any number of bedrooms like this, dotted round the city like crime scenes, rooms where you were never more than six feet from a Nina Simone album.” After their night of kissing, fumbling and (on her part) hostile banter meant as coquetry, Emma, upright and uptight, announces that she can picture Dex at 40, in a tiny sports car: “You’ve got this little paunch tucked under the leather steering wheel like a little pillow and those backless gloves on, thinning hair and no chin. You’re a big man in a small car with a tan like a basted turkey.” His own vision for himself is more hopeful. He wants to “feature in magazine articles,” and grandly imagines a future “retrospective of his work, without having any clear notion of what that work might be.”
Very soon, their attitudes have stretched to fit the contours of the compromised, flashy decade to come. Emma, clinging to her idealism, plays bass in an “all-girl band . . . variously called Throat, Slaughterhouse Six and Bad Biscuit,” then joins a strident arts collective called Sledgehammer Theatre Cooperative (intent on doing “really good, exciting original political devised work”) before taking a job at a Mexican restaurant called Loco Caliente. It’s grubby work, but not as degrading, from Emma’s point of view, as applying for and being rejected from publishing jobs. On the side, she writes poetry in an “expensive new black leather notebook with a stubby fountain pen.” One sample of her work doesn’t augur well for her literary future: “It was the nachos that did it. / The steaming variegated mess like the mess of her life / Summing up all that was wrong / With / Her / Life.” Later Emma wonders if “what she believes to be a love of the written word is really just a fetish for stationery.” When her boss offers her the job of restaurant manager because “I want someone who isn’t going anywhere. Someone reliable who isn’t going to run off to India without giving proper notice or drop it all for some exciting job,” she begins to cry.
Meanwhile, Dex, who did run off to India after Edinburgh, builds a career in London as the host of a succession of tawdry late-night television shows like “Largin’ It,” a loud lad-fest with rock bands and movie star guests, and cage dancers as backup. Flush with cash and coke, gleaming with zircon semi-fame, he shows up at Emma’s restaurant with a glossy new girlfriend, bragging of star-studded nights out and shaming Emma by pushing her to accept a tip. “Wrap party,” the hurt, contemptuous Emma says to herself. “He has become someone who goes to wrap parties.” But that sour reflection won’t sweeten her regard for her dull, devoted boyfriend, a lackluster comic (and Loco Caliente waiter) named Ian, whose mouth “hung open in repose” and whose face “made her think of tractors.” Ian’s relentless store of canned jokes fills Emma with chagrin. When they’re first dating, as he riffs on the menu offerings, she wonders “where the fallacy had come from, that there was something irresistible about funny men.” She can’t help making a comparison: Ian “was a man with a great sense of humor while at the same time being in no way funny. Unlike Dexter.” “Where,” she wonders, “was Dexter right now?”
Back in Bombay, Dex had drafted a long letter, “six blue sheets densely written on both sides,” guardedly revealing his affection for Emma and urging her to spend a few months with him in India. He would wire her money for the ticket; they would meet at the Taj Mahal. But the letter was never mailed. Instead, he left it on a barroom sofa in Bombay and headed off to a hostel with a “trainee pharmacist from Rotterdam with fading henna on her hands, a jar of temazepam in her pocket and a poorly executed tattoo of Woody Woodpecker at the base of her spine.”
A few years later, in the Greek islands, where they’ve gone for a just-friends holiday, Dex and Emma abide by a pre-vacation agreement: separate bedrooms and no flirting. Should they give it a try anyway? Could Cupid possibly unite a rudderless roué (whose own mother mourns, “Sometimes I worry that you’re not very nice anymore”) and a woman so self-conscious she thinks there’s a wrong way to skinny dip? Again and again, these two nearly come together. But it’s not until 1999, 11 years after their first collision, that Emma finally tells Dex, “When I didn’t see you, I thought about you every day, I mean every day, in some way or another.” “Same here,” he replies. The tardy confession accompanies the announcement of his engagement to another woman.
Will Dex and Emma get together before it’s too late? Will they ever act on the lone un-self-conscious thought Emma has been able to hold in her head since the day she walked away from Dexter, when she was 22 and he was 23, as his parents drove him home from college into his still unblemished future? “Love and be loved,” she had told herself, “if you ever get the chance.” It’s something you may want to find out this summer at poolside. And if you do, you may want to take care where you lay this book down. You may not be the only one who wants in on the answers.