I know that it’s the easiest thing in the world to write a bad review of something. I get it. It’s much easier to be snarky and dismissive than to write a positive and appreciative review.
I used to read The Believer, a magazine which makes a virtue of never being snarky or dismissive. I’m just not that virtuous.
The best thing I can say about David Nicholls’ novel One Day is that I read it in one day. I don’t normally read 430 pages in a single day, but it was shabbat and this was the shabbiest thing I have read in a long time. I was racing to finish it and move on. Trite, insulting, easy and dull. Just awful.
One Day charts the relationship between a single couple on the same day each year for 20 years from the date of their graduation in 1988. This silly device, that movie producers will call “high concept“, allows the author to leave much of the plot off screen. If it doesn’t happen on July 15th, it doesn’t appear on the page. Yawn.
Nicholls uses overworked cliches instead of description and setting. Loved-up losers turning up late for work? Must be ’93. Perpetual Peter Pan plays too much Tomb Raider? That’ll be the year 2000, then. Nicholls never misses a chance to chuck in a cheap reference to make the reader say, “I remember that”.
Ever the self-conscious observationist, Nicholls calls himself out having his lead character decry the tendency of people to fall back on repetitive riffs. The first time you heard the joke about how you don’t see white dog poo anymore, it was funny. That was a while ago.
“… while it drove her crazy she knew that she encouraged it too, the girls sitting and grinning while the boys did tricks with matchsticks and jammed on Children’s TV or Forgotten Confectionery of the Seventies. Spangles Disease, the maddening non-stop cabaret of boys in pubs.”
It’s a neat observation. Spangles Disease: The inflammation of one’s comedic patience through the unqualified repetition of a shared reminiscence. Nicholls’ novel is riddled with Spangles Disease and I fear it may be terminal.
From the get-go, Nicholls sprays his canvas with stock references that lazily take the place of actual description. Lying in bed in student digs in 1988, the male lead falls into this terrible trope:
“Feeling for an ashtray, he found a book at the side of the bed. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, spine creased at the ‘erotic’ bits. The problem with these fiercely individualistic girls was that they were all exactly the same. Another book: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Silly bloody fool, he thought, confident that it was not a mistake he would ever make.”
Not content with one book reference to give context, Nicholls hits us with a second book and a throwaway gag just to cement the setting. Kundera. Sacks. Yep, she’s a female student in 1988. Ugh.
Leaving aside this irritating shorthand, I couldn’t find a single character in One Day that was remotely likeable. Everyone is awful. Self-regarding, shallow, vain and small. I get that this may be a true depiction of humanity, I just think it makes for a really unappealing read.
And that’s how I feel just over 24 hours after starting One Day. It was a really unappealing read.
If you’ve read it and disagree, let me know.
Here’s a much more rewarding version of “One Day”: Matisyahu beatboxing with the PS22 Chorus. Glorious.