This novel spans a couple of decades but takes place on a single date – 15 July, St Swithin’s Day, destined to be the anniversary of several key events in the lives of the two principals. They are Emma Morley – spiky, non-U, from Yorkshire; and Dexter Mayhew, very confident, very handsome, large parental home in the Cotswolds.
Emma and Dexter first meet on 15 July 1988, the last day of their studenthoods in Edinburgh, when they sort of get off with each other and first exchange banter, if not too many bodily fluids. Thereafter, the novel catches up with them every subsequent 15 July, the annual updates charting the course of their lives and their continuing though not always flourishing friendship.
When that first date turns out to have been a one-night stand, the very unpromiscuous Emma has to work harder at coping with the platonic nature of their friendship than the bed-hopping Dexter. She also has to work harder at coping with the disappointments of post-university life and several years as a waitress in a ghastly Tex-Mex restaurant in north London.
Dexter, on the other hand, doesn’t have to work hard at anything, as a couple of agreeably hedonistic gap years give way to an agreeably hedonistic life in TV and a job presenting an early-90s late-night youth programme.
While Dexter enjoys as many drugs, cocktails and women as he can get his hands on, Emma continues to serve up noisome nachos in Kentish Town. But things gradually pick up for her. She escapes her Tex-Mex hell to become a teacher and eventually acquires a boyfriend, Ian, a magnificently hopeless stand-up comedian.
Dexter’s TV career, meanwhile, soon peaks and almost immediately plummets, barely pausing at cable before reaching rock bottom. Having done for his job, Dexter’s drink-addled selfishness also threatens his increasingly fraught friendship with Emma. On a disastrous night out on 15 July 1995, she tells him that she loves him but no longer likes him. The next few 15 Julys see their friendship somehow surviving other threats, including Dexter’s marriage to a high Tory ice queen and Emma’s new career as a bestselling author of teen fiction.
Among many other things, One Day is a very persuasive and endearing account of a close friendship – the delight Emma and Dexter take in one another, the flirting and the banter that sometimes hide resentment and sometimes yearning, the way the relationship shifts and evolves as the years pass.
But the most noticeable feature of these protagonists and their friendship is their extraordinarily high laughs-per-page ratio. Nicholls’s first novel, Starter for Ten, was gagtastic and, in a couple of its setpieces, successfully invited comparison with Lucky Jim. His second, The Understudy, was very, very funny. But One Day is funnier still: the headmaster’s beard that becomes a balaclava, Dexter’s bubbly co-presenter who talks in capitals and who “would start a letter of condolence with the word ‘Wahey!'”, Ian’s “tracky botts”, Ian’s ring-in-the-calamari proposal, Ian’s relentless patter – indeed, just about every sentence involving Ian.
But there’s much more to this novel than the jokes and the apparently limitless supply of comic detail. Entertaining and polished as Nicholls’s earlier books were, they were both genre-bound comedies where things tended to happen to the hapless heroes simply because they were in comedies. Here he adds to his exceptional comic talent a new-found depth. As the laughs keep coming, and as Emma and Dexter’s years go by, One Day grows in power.
It is, I suppose, handy that the two of them should land jobs as a TV presenter and a bestselling writer; Edinburgh’s Old Town is once called the Old City; and there may be a mistake in one of the dates late in the book – but that’s all I can offer by way of criticism. Just as Nicholls has made full use of his central concept, so he has drawn on all his comic and literary gifts to produce a novel that is not only roaringly funny but also memorable, moving and, in its own unassuming, unpretentious way, rather profound.