Book Simple: The Last Book That Made Me Weep
I should have known when my aunt recommended it; she always appreciates books as literature rather than some sort of a terrible looking glass and can tolerate much more emotional turmoil in her reading than I can manage. I should have known better than to read it on a work night, I thought, when I paused for a moment so that I could sob out loud. But there I was, two in the morning, openly weeping over One Day, by David Nicholls.
The book describes a series of days in the lives of Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, both graduates of Edinburgh University. The date is St. Swithin’s Day, proverbially used to predict the weather for forty days. In the novel, each day forms a chain through the lives of our two protagonists. We meet Emma as a slightly ridiculous, puffy political activist and Dexter as a vain, shallow peacock, and their first encounter (unsuccessfully in bed, after too much wine) makes you wonder exactly why either of them would ever bother to think about the other again.
But I’ve known several Dexters in my time, so I wasn’t surprised to find Emma writing long, long funny letters to Dexter as he travelled about abroad the next year. “China has turned out to be too alien and ideological for Dexter’s taste, and he had instead embarked on a leisurely year-long tour of what the guide books called ‘Party Towns.’” While Dexter travels, Emma remains at home and slightly bored. “So they were pen pals now, Emma composing…two-thousand-word acts of love on air-mail paper.” She sends him thick bricks of English literature to broaden his mind. Dexter returns to her postcards reading “‘Amsterdam is MAD’, ‘Barcelona INSANE’, ‘Dublin ROCKS.’”
Don’t do it, Emma, I thought. Save yourself. This kind of thing takes years to get over.
Because Dexter cares about Emma too, almost enough. Finally writing her back, while drunk, in India, he asks her to “go to the student travel agency on Tottenham Court Road and book and OPEN RETURN flight to Delhi…and go to the Taj Mahal…Have a look around and at precisely 12 midday you stand directly under the center of the dome with a red rose in one hand and a copy of Nicholas Nickleby in the other and I will come and find you, Em. I will be carrying a white rose and my copy of Howards End and when I see you I will throw it at your head.” It’s been two years, they’ve fallen in epistolary love as you do in your twenties, and Dexter ends the letter “Dex and Em, Em and Dex. Call me sentimental, but there’s no-one in the world that I’d like to see get dysentery more than you.”
Before he sends the letter, though, Dexter reads it again. “What had seemed urgent and touching an hour ago now seemed mawkish and gauche and sometimes frankly deceitful.” The letter is tucked inside the copy of Howards End. Dexter forgets, follows a girl’s tramp stamp tattoo out of the bar, leaves the book behind.
“Dex and Em, Em and Dex” began to read “[redacted] and Amy, Amy and [redacted]” in my head. I’ve never identified quite so painfully with characters in a novel. The awful poetry Emma writes, the terrible façade Dexter puts on – little moments of shame that literally made my skin crawl they were so familiar.
The new manager at “Loco Caliente, a Tex-Mex restaurant on the Kentish Town Road where both food and atmosphere were hot hot hot” looks back at Emma from her mirror. Where in college “she had thought she could conquer London,” Emma has found an adult life spent dishing up burritos. London doesn’t want her double first in English and History. “The city had defeated her, just like they said it would. Like some overcrowded party, no-one had noticed her arrival, and no-one would notice if she left.”
This is not, as with all self-hatred, entirely true. Dexter would notice, but probably too late and with some other woman’s tongue in his mouth. Returned from India a TV presenter, he visits her at Loco Caliente, though always with a different date. “Dexter has a very short attention span,” Emma explains. “Like a baby. Or a monkey. You need to dangle something shiny in front of him.” Jumping up to hug Emma when she comes to serve his table, Dexter “spoke to her now less like an old friend, more like our next very special guest.”
One Day has a specific meaning in the novel that I can’t describe to you here; the discovery is too bittersweet to spoil it. But the title also describes the putting off we do in our lives, the postponing for the eventual day we’ll be ready to love the people in our lives properly, to treat ourselves with respect, to deal with our humiliations and failures and move on. Emma and Dexter’s missed opportunities are achingly real and painful and beautiful. Don’t you miss reading this.
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