Another week and another novel looking backwards. Last week I reviewed Anne Beattie's novella, Walks with Men, which looked back at being young and ambitious in New York City in the 1980s. In his latest novel, One Day, David Nicholls looks back at being young and ambitious in London in the 1990s and follows through with growing older into the new millennium. Nicholls does a lot of things just right with his looking backwards novel: he sets up a great premise -- the ups and downs of the relationship between a man and a woman over twenty years -- and rolls out the plot using cues of love, lust, despair, and loss, all cues both easily recognized by the audience and embraced as reflecting our own experiences over the past twenty years (or more). He creates great visual landscapes -- Edinburgh, London, Greece, Paris -- as well as specific locales, including a Mexican restaurant, a debauched nightclub, a cozy writer's garret, and an over-the-top wedding reception park with its own hedge maze and parking valets. He very accurately portrays how much humans stay the same even as we mature from young and hopeful into older and wiser.
And yet where Nicholls fails in One Day is at any attempt to deepen our understanding of the experience of growth and maturity. He shows a reflection of life but only the surface reflection, snapshots of change instead of examinations. Nicholls' cleverest device, that of structuring the book in chapters all set on the same day but on a subsequent year, works well to structure the novel but it does not allow a genuine reckoning of what went on in the days and months in between. The one-day-a-year device is also just too blatant an invitation to make a movie (Same Time, Next Year ring a bell?) and underscores all the other script-like mechanisms of the novel, including clichéd descriptions of the lead and supporting characters (classic good-looking, quirky good-looking, ice princess, geek); the lower-class/upper-class tension between the couple (Love Story ring a bell?); the friends/lovers tension between the couple (When Harry Met Sally ring a bell?); and the setting of the trendy, attractive locales mentioned above (sure, I loved reading about them and will enjoy seeing them on the big screen but they are clichés, nonetheless). This book has been adapted to a movie, with Anne Hathaway signed up to play the poor girl in love with the rich boy. I'm sure the soundtrack will be great and the stars will be lovely and the ending will bring tears. I'm sure I'll go see the movie and enjoy myself.
After all, I did enjoy reading One Day. But it is not a book that made me see life or loss or ambition or love with a new understanding or from a new point of view. I looked in a mirror and saw much I recognized but nothing that enlightened or enlarged my recognition. Walks with Men led me to a new understanding of rules of behavior and modes of relationships; One Day led me to cheers and tears but nowhere new in experience or understanding.