Sunday, 11 September 2011

I Laughed, I Cried

My mad French neighbour - actually, that's inaccurate: she is Belgian, not French, and mad only in the sense that she expects life to be heaven and rails against the world when it is not - was complaining a while ago that her children hadn't had any children yet and therefore she was no longer in touch with what was going on.   Her argument was that having kids about the place stops you from being a stranger in your own lifetime, wandering supermarket aisles baffled by new products like liquid soap, leafing through weekend newspapers, unable to recognise the faces of anyone featured.

Being her, of course, my neighbour remains dissatisfied, even though her daughter has since produced a baby; the source of dissatisfaction now is  the fact that the father her daughter has chosen for her baby is wealthy and successful and they live very comfortably in Sydney whereas, 'I wanted my daughter to go bush walking and camping and carry her baby in a backpack, not live in a house with a Jacuzzi and own one of those pushchairs that looks like a tank.'

All the same, the fact that nothing ever pleases her doesn't mean my neighbour doesn't sometimes have a point. This week, for example, the truth of her argument about being made aware of things by the young struck home particularly forcefully for me. Without a child to point it out to me, I would never have known the novel called One Day by David Nicholls existed. Instead, having been told about it by my younger daughter - thank you, Lucy - I've been able to spend the past two days immersed in its pages, if not unable, certainly very unwilling, to put it down.

The action of One Day takes place over twenty years and follows the lives of two characters - Emma and Dexter - who spend the night together at the very end of university, but remain relatively chaste during the experience, thus setting up that acronymic situation that LA scriptwriters are apparently taught is vital to a TV show's success - MUFT, SMURF? - in which two people made for each other somehow keep not quite falling into each other's arms.

It is evidence of what a good writer Nicholls is that he manages to persuade the reader - or this one anyway - that on that first night Emma and Dexter do somehow control themselves. Even greater evidence of his skill is the fact that the novel does not, as so many do these days, start off engaging and hilarious and then disappoint, but remains throughout its full 435 pages extremely funny, observant and utterly engrossing.

Moreover, although the book is to a large extent a remorseless satire of the eighties and nineties - and the portrait of his own society that Nicholls gives is every inch as masterful as Franzen would like his to be but provided without any apparent pretensions on the part of Nicholls to the mantel of 'important writer' - and although one of the main characters is at times almost nightmarish in his self-absorption and self-destructiveness, astonishingly Nicholls never loses our sympathy for the two protagonists. This is largely because his insight is so acute (his rendering of the dangers that the gifts of good looks and charm can bring an individual struck me as particularly original).

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I do not remember the last time I was so captivated by a novel - my only criticism might be that my desire to keep reading was almost too intense; I found myself wishing I could get away from my friends and family in order to return to Dexter and Emma. The fact that somehow as well as being moving and full of romantic suspense the book is also exceptionally funny only adds to its attractions. I have nothing more to say apart from: read this book.

STOP PRESS: I have just come back from seeing the film, which isn't worth seeing unless you've read and liked the book. Viewed without that preparation, the film is just a flimsy rom-com. Actually, even if you have read and liked the book, you might want to think twice about going - or at least look away when the Ian Whitehead character comes on the screen. Emma was going out with someone who was a compromise, not Lou from Little Britain, although that seems to have been the model the actor chose for his portrayal. I think it would have been better if they'd cast the man who plays the tall sports teacher in the TV series Teachers in the part. Ann Hathaway does a very good job though, I think.

(Coincidentally, as I was walking up the street on my way home just now, who should I meet but my mad, [not mad] French, [not French] neighbour. 'Hello, ZMKC, what have you been doing?' was her greeting. I told her I'd been to the cinema. She sniffed. 'You should not be in a stuffy cinema on a Sunday afternoon,' she told me, 'you should have been out in the fresh air planting trees, like me.' As usual, she was probably right.)


  1. Magnificent story. I haven't been this enthusiastic about a book in so long. That ending, so many tears. I was reading it in Goulburn, and I had to bring it to work to read in breaks.

  2. The odd thing is, I bet Nicholls will never be asked to the Sydney Writers' Festival: he does that dreadful thing called entertaining, oh dear me.

  3. Hmmm.... You've made me want to read it. Trouble is I just bought 4 kindle books yesterday and have three more "real" books beside the bed. I guess it will just have to go on the Christmas list

  4. Nurse, If these examples from the start of the book make you laugh, and you feel like countless more similar, I'd advise putting your other books off (this one won't take long, if you get as glued as I did): the main female character, after university, is stuck at home, unemployed, with a mother who asks daily, 'But you've got a double first. What happened to your double first? if Emma's degree was a super-power that she stubbornly refused to use' and, when Emma goes to stay with much richer and more stylish semi-boyfriend she manages to shout at his father about Nicaragua and call him a fascist so that later she lies 'in the guest bedroom, dazed and remorseful, waiting for a knock on the door that clearly would never come, romantic hopes sacrificed for the Sandinistas, who were unlikely to be grateful.'

  5. I just read it and also couldn't put it down. I thought the parts with Ian were some of the funniest, so won't risk seeing him badly portrayed in the movie. I also loved the scene of Dexter playing the game with Sylvie's family. It reminded me of another great meet-the-family scene with Woody Allen meeting Annie Hall's family. All very entertaining, I agree, with great dialogue. Thanks for the recommendation.

  6. And after I'd finished it, I liked thinking about the sad bits and feeling poignant again - like prodding a healing wound (or is it - have I ever actually done that and, if so, have I ever got pleasure from it? I can't actually think of an occasion when I have. But it seems right in contemplation at least [can you tell I just stepped off a plane and should really be asleep?])