Emma and Dexter meet for the first time on the night of their graduation. Tomorrow they must go their separate ways. So where will they be on this one day next year? And the year after that? And every year that follows? Twenty years, two people, ONE DAY. From the author of the massive bestseller STARTER FOR TEN.
Really freaking angry.
I finished this book yesterday, and I'm still pissed off.
I'll try to do this without spoilers.
The basic storyline is this: Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew have known each other since early University. On the evening of graduation, they have an unconsummated make out session that leads to a lifelong relationship. The central conceit of the story is that it revisits them on the anniversary of that date each year for twenty years.
All well and good so far. The glimpses of their lives that we as readers are treated to are sometimes enlightening, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, and often frustrating. Imagine taking the events of your any given day and relating them to a disinterested observer, once a year. Just that day, and no other. Even given the context that would eventually develop, could you fairly expect them to know you or care about what happens to you? If you're lucky, and if you're a very talented storyteller (as Nicholls clearly is), you might be able to create some relationship with that observer, even of the most tenuous sort. But if you can't quite make that connection... not so good.
I was really looking forward to reading this book, as I found Nicholls' earlier novel, "Starter for 10" to be a funny, heart tugging slice of real life. This book has that charm as well. The narrative (most of it-I'll come back to this later) is clear, the dialogue believable, and the characterizations consistent (even given he changes that can be expected over twenty years' time). Nicholls sketches locations in a way that brings the reader right inside the rooms, on the streets, in the moment. I enjoyed that aspect very much. He has a power to his writing that captures the imagination. As a writer as well as a lifelong reader, I really appreciate that Nicholls' secondary and tertiary characters are drawn with the same sureness as his protagonists. That makes for so much more enjoyable a read than the now-popular habit authors have gotten into of 'shorthanding' the side characters--most often they are nothing more than cardboard cut outs, with only the barest hit of life. Not so these minor characters.
So we come to the main characters. Emma first, because I came to like her quite a lot. It's gratifying to see her grow from an angry, self-conscious college graduate into a strong,confident woman. She is by no means perfect: she has her moments of preachiness and self-satisfaction, of self-pity and judgmentalism. They are balanced by her good points, though: she's kind and self-sacrificing, brave and open-hearted. In that way, she's a very realistic character. At the end of the day, despite her faults, you like her.
No so with Dexter, at least not for me. In Dexter we have a most inadmirable character. He's a cad. He's a bit of an elitist. He's selfish and self-centered. And when he's not being all these things, he's self-pitying and whiny. I understand Nicholls' heart for the unsympathetic character--he did some of the same things with the character of Brian in "Starter for 10". Brian was a bit of a wanker at the beginning of "Starter", and it was almost refreshing that he was still a prat at the end. In the middle, though... we come to understand him. We can connect. I remember cringing as I saw myself in some of the asinine things he did, and I think that situation wasn't limited to me. There is none of that with Dexter, though, and it's a pity. At no point did I like or feel any sympathy for him. That's a difficult thing to pull off for an author, especially when the character isn't supposed to be evil (think Humbert Humbert in 'Lolita'). Emma refers to Dexter's good points several times in the novel, but the problem for me is that I saw very, very few of them in action. Maybe if we were treated in the course of the narrative to more instances of those qualities Emma talks about, I could have cared what happened to him at the end.
And the end... well, here's where it gets the hardest not to spoil. Suffice to say that I hated it, and not because it wasn't what I expected/wanted. I don't go into a book looking for a certain ending. What I do expect is for the ending to make narrative sense, no matter if it's happy or sad. The ending of this book seemed to me to be a massive shark jump, from a realistic, if wistful, ending to one of hyper-drama. Maybe I'll look back on it later and see something different... maybe I'll see the departure point from reality as a good thing, an honest jarring of the senses. Maybe.
But right now, I feel like Annie Wilkes in "Misery": "It's a dirty cheat."
I give this three coffee cups out of five, because I do truly like Nicholls' writing style, and I admire his way with words and capacity to create believable situations and characters. I may read this again in future and 'get it'. But not now.
T butting in for a moment: I actually really loved this book despite being unsure about it at the beginning. It made me laugh, it made me cry, and some of the quotes stuck with me even a year after reading it. I honestly think you either love or don't.