I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of romantic novels on the whole, not as a genre anyway. However, I’m also that annoying person who writes outside the boxes on forms, resists the Census and ticks ‘rather not say’ if there’s an option to do so. My objection is to categories and putting things in boxes. I don’t object to a love story, in fact some of my favourite books are love stories. It’s just I don’t like it when love stories are packaged as romantic fiction or women’s fiction, given candy pink or baby blue covers, and characters who have little depth or motivation beyond the ‘meet cute’. I understand that, since Shakespeare, there’s been a set formula to the love story, but this can be taken to extremes. I actively hate simple love stories with manufactured obstacles and I definitely hated Fifty Shades of Grey (which was in no way a love story, but marketed as one). Perhaps my problem isn’t with love, but with romance; a much more contrived hearts, flowers and happy endings sort of place.
I like real obstacles: the terrible coincidence in Rosie Walsh’s The Man Who Didn’t Call; the limits posed by Will’s attitude to his disability in Me Before You; the mad wife in the attic in Jane Eyre; the girlish mistake of refusing a proposal in Persuasion. My favourite romcom is When Harry Met Sally so I do enjoy a ‘friends to lovers’ scenario, but it’s also witty with snappy dialogue and Billy Crystal making a woman miaow in bed. I love stories that are based within a historical or time-slip setting like the Outlander series of novels by Diana Gabaldon. I also like it when characters are so real it’s painful like Sally Rooney’s awkward teenage fumbling in Ordinary People. The characters must have depth, genuine problems or some meaty psychological issues to get my teeth into. I enjoy love stories set in other cultures or those that could be written as forbidden. I loved the viewpoint of a man coming to terms with his homosexuality in A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale and the transgressive love affair of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I enjoyed how love blossomed from a marriage of convenience during the Windrush era in Andrea Levy’s Small Island. I also loved the bittersweet tale of love gone wrong in David Nicholls’s other novel Us where our protagonist’s marriage breakdown comes into focus on a trip through Europe, interspersed beautifully with scenes from when they fall in love.
Several years ago, like thousands of others, I was blindsided by One Day. There was a time when you couldn’t move on public transport without knocking into someone reading this book. It’s a simple premise. Dexter and Emma were at Edinburgh University and as they graduate they spend the day together and forge a friendship, they climb Arthur’s Seat in their cap and gowns and talk about what they want for their futures. Dex would like to work in television and Emma would like to be a writer. The book then follows their story on the same day each year, sometimes together and sometimes apart, we see how life has changed them and the circumstances they find themselves in. Of course we know that Emma and Dex should be together, but will they ever find the right time or the courage to try?
I’ll be honest, at first I didn’t feel ‘grabbed’ by their story. My interest was mainly in their individual lives, especially considering that the book is set so that they’re both a similar age to me. I recognised the era, the reference points and also the struggles of life as they go through them. I thought Dex was a bit of a dick to be honest. He’s a player, egotistical and at times downright unpleasant. I really bonded with Emma though. A northern girl, she has a brand of kindness and an ability to see through bullshit that I liked. I saw some of me in her and I have always wanted to be a writer, but also went into teacher training (and didn’t finish). She clearly loves Dex, but will he ever see her? Mostly he sees her as a consolation prize, a shoulder to cry on, an advice giver and sometimes the great big kick up the arse he deserves. I can honestly say I hoped they never got together at several points in the book, because I didn’t think he deserved her. There’s a point where Emma has gone through a really tough time. She breaks off her engagement and goes through moving out and separating from her fiancé emotionally and financially. She goes out to Paris for a while and starts to write a children’s book. She has her hair cut short. She makes friends. I loved this Emma and I thought she’s built a new life from the ground up with no help from anyone. I wanted her to stay there.
As I know all too well, our love lives never simple. Often, where the decisions to be together seem very easy to make, it’s the right person. It’s reciprocal and committed. When we’re younger we’re learning about who we are in a relationship. We don’t know how much to compromise and how much to stick firmly to who we are or what we want for ourselves. We can get tangled up in relationships that are no good for us, are abusive, are with people who cheat, or people who put up obstacles and change their minds. We love people who aren’t ready, or who are too busy adding notches to the bed post. We can be so unsure of ourselves in our teenage years (and beyond) that we accept relationships that aren’t good for us and allow behaviour that’s demeaning or grinds down our self-worth. It’s also hard to love someone who doesn’t love you or who claims they can’t be with you. That great line from Sex and the City springs to mind – ‘he’s just not that into you’ – because when they are into you, they move mountains to be there. I felt that Dex was scared of real love and preferred empty encounters with beautiful women. Emma doesn’t value herself enough to set boundaries or ask for the love she deserves.
Everybody who knows the book will know the line I’m talking about. That one line I read and spontaneously burst into tears. That rarely happens with a book, but it did here. That’s when I knew this book had got me. My emotions were so invested in these characters that I had such a spontaneous response. I’m not sure how David Nicholls managed it, but I’ve spoken to other people who were similarly emotional. I think it’s the way he writes these two characters, they’re real and flawed. They struggle with life. We go through so many highs and lows with them, because even though we meet up with them on one day, we’re drawn in to how they got where they are. They’re not perfect either, far from it. Nichols weaves in addiction problems, affairs, career disasters and the difficulties of being a parent. There’s also huge loss to, and how the characters deal with these setbacks. One Day is a love story. Love is the primary theme of the novel. However, it’s also about being honest with ourself and others about our feelings and about recognising what love actually is. Perhaps I love One Day because it does go beyond the ‘falling in love’ stage, that even after years of yearning and kidding themselves about their feelings, Emma and Dex can still wake up one morning unnecessarily grumpy and tense with one another. Life is full of obstacles and love doesn’t stop them coming. Love isn’t always excitement, flinging your clothes off and swinging from chandeliers. Real love is always about being with your best friend.
Meet The Author
David Alan Nicholls (born 30 November 1966) is an English novelist and screenwriter. Nicholls is the middle of three siblings. He attended Barton Peveril sixth-form college at Eastleigh, Hampshire, from 1983 to 1985 (taking A-levels in Drama and Theatre Studies along with English, Physics and Biology), and playing a wide range of roles in college drama productions. Colin Firth was at the same College and they later collaborated in And When Did You Last See Your Father?. He went to Bristol University in the 1980s (graduating with a BA in Drama and English in 1988) before training as an actor at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. Throughout his 20s, he worked as a professional actor using the stage name David Holdaway. He played small roles at various theatres, including the West Yorkshire Playhouse and, for a three-year period, at the Royal National Theatre. He struggled as an actor and has said “I’d committed myself to a profession for which I lacked not just talent and charisma, but the most basic of skills. Moving, standing still – things like that.”
Since then, David has turned to writing full-time, and is the author of four novels. ‘One Day’ was an international bestseller and the follow-up, ‘Us’, was long listed for the Man Booker Prize. He’s also a screenwriter and TV dramatist; his credits include adaptations of ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’, ‘Great Expectations’, ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ and feature film version of his own novels. ‘One Day’ and ‘Starter for Ten