Friday, April 5, 2019

Book Review: One Day by David Nicholls

It's so hard to find a good love story these days, one wonders if love itself is hiding in the shadows, waiting for someone to properly articulate its existence. David Nicholls did his best in 2009 with his book, One Day, adapted into a film starring Anne Hathaway. The film is good--I admit to crying at the end, despite knowing the plot--but not a true adaptation. 
From the beginning, Hathaway was a risky choice to play a rebellious, Doc Marten's-wearing character with a pen Shakespeare would envy. We see glimpses of youthful defiance when Hathaway wears an anti-war t-shirt and peace buttons on her jacket, but she plays the character as Desdemona to a second-tier Othello, whereas Nicholls wrote her character as far more interesting, more punk genius than lovelorn robin. 

Let me do my best to fill in the gaps in case you make the mistake of not reading the book. We all know the "Cinderella meets Rich Prince" motif has been explored to death, but Nicholls infuses Emma Morley with such verve, no one would dare think her inferior in any way to her would-be prince, Dexter Mayhew. Sadly, the film omits the written correspondence between the two protagonists as they travel in different directions, keeping in touch except for brief periods. Like Cinderella's spic-and-span work ethic, Emma's letters establish her as unjustly downtrodden, her descriptions of colleagues and roommates alternating between comedy and tragedy: "I asked him [a fellow theater actor playing a slave] to get me a packet of crisps [aka chips] in this café the other day and he looked at me like I was OPPRESSING him or something." 

It is within these same letters we understand Emma's unconditional love for Dexter, springing from the vast differences between them, including his privileged upbringing: "I know your whole childhood was spent playing French cricket on a bloody great chamomile lawn and you never did anything as déclassé as watch the telly..." Cinderella never mocked her prince, nor displayed the aptitude to do so, which is why such Disney stories are unappealing to intelligent adults. In contrast, Emma uses Dexter's status as modern-day royalty to showcase her sharp wit, and in doing so, make him a better man. Consequently, the best comparison to One Day isn't Cinderella or Othello, but a transposed riff on Pretty Woman, with Richard Gere's charm intact but his money replaced by intelligence: "Yes, you had to be smart, but not Emma-smart. Just politic, shrewd, ambitious," Dexter tells himself while considering career options.  

And yet, Dexter isn't exactly the male bimbo caricature the film makes him out to be. It's true the director makes us ache for Dexter's lost potential at every turn, at one point giving him as vacuous a girlfriend as imaginable, a showbiz tart who makes Kim Kardashian look worthy of a Nobel Prize in Physics. Dexter's portrayal is unfair because first, he's lost his mother to cancer, which clearly upends his very being, given his emotional distance from his disapproving father (who, interestingly, married a woman far more classy than he deserved, as both the film and book insinuate--at least until the very end). 

Moreover, unlike the stereotypical bimbo or cad, Dexter knows he's not smart, so he tries to find a niche where he can prove his worth. He knows the entire time he can't compete on any level-playing field in the real world, which is why he's so ashamed to face his mother's expectations, and why he's so smitten with Emma: "Without her[,] he is without merit or virtue or purpose..." For her part, Emma knows she's the perfect foil for Dexter, and without him, she wouldn't have a punching bag, er, muse capable of helping her reach Tysonian or Lewisian heights. Unfortunately, the film underestimates its audience by expressly telling us their union is about opposites attracting, even giving Dexter a ying-and-yang ankle tattoo (at least it wasn't on his lower back). 

There are so many ways to interpret the book--the proletariat's place in a bourgeois world being just one of them--I'll stop and let you explore Nicholls' writing yourself. If you've already seen the movie, here's one excerpt that should give you an idea of the book's higher workmanship: 
Here's to smart, witty, kind women. If you find one who loves you, cherish her and have a nice life. 

No comments: