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Dex and Emma forever: how One Day became the literary phenomenon of the Noughties

Phenomenon: ‘One Day’ has become one of our most beloved romances (Alamy/Netflix/Getty)
Phenomenon: ‘One Day’ has become one of our most beloved romances (Alamy/Netflix/Getty)

I can still remember my mum’s disclaimer as she put her copy of One Day on my sun lounger, the paperback’s orange cover slightly wilted from the heat. “I should warn you,” she said, looking mildly shell-shocked. “There’s a sad bit at the end.” Talk about an understatement. The tens of thousands of fellow readers who picked up a copy that summer were probably similarly scarred by the experience. But this didn’t stop One Day from becoming one of the biggest, most enduring literary love stories of the ensuing decade. Now, 15 years on from its initial release, Netflix is going to put long-term devotees and a new generation of fans through the emotional wringer, with a 14-part adaptation starring Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall.

Before One Day, author and screenwriter David Nicholls had published two novels, Starter for 10 and The Understudy. Both had earned good reviews – and his debut spawned a very enjoyable film adaptation starring James McAvoy – but the latter didn’t sell quite as well. When his third book was released in 2009, Nicholls was “quite prepared for [it] to be part of a downward trajectory”, he later said. He needn’t have worried. The Times hailed it as “a wonderful, wonderful book”, while The Guardian described it as “not only roaringly funny but also memorable, moving and … rather profound”. The reviews weren’t all raves: The Observer claimed it felt “dated, plodding through the same old plotlines of boy-meets-girl”. But that didn’t matter: the book had already become a phenomenon. For a while, it seemed like you couldn’t get on a bus or train without spotting that distinctive cover, with its two orange silhouettes facing off against each other.

One Day is the When Harry Met Sally of romantic novels, and not just because it’s about two friends with bucketloads of chemistry: it’s the book that should be prescribed to anyone who loudly claims that love stories are naff, just as the Nora Ephron film is a good rejoinder to anyone who believes romcoms are trivial. It has now sold around 5 million copies in 40 languages and has amassed legions of loyal fans, for whom re-reading it is a near-annual ritual. The writer Dolly Alderton has hailed it as “the book I go back to time and time again”, while the Women’s Prize shortlisted author Maggie Shipstead says it “never gets old”. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve returned to One Day over the years. I even think I’ve re-watched the patchy 2011 film adaptation starring Anne Hathaway and her allegedly Northern accent, which probably makes me something of an anomaly; Hathaway’s casting stoked serious controversy on this side of the Atlantic, as British readers kicked up the biggest fuss since they found out Renée Zellweger would be playing Bridget Jones.

So what made the book such a staggering success? Fundamentally it’s a love story, full of will-they won’t-they (should they even?) tension. At the heart of the story are Emma and Dexter, a pair of platonic-ish best friends who first meet on 15 July 1988, just after they’ve both graduated from the University of Edinburgh. Dexter is privileged, self-assured and good-looking, with “the knack of looking perpetually posed for a photograph”. Emma is more diffident and hails from an ordinary family in Leeds; she’s fiercely idealistic, but cynical enough to cut through most of Dexter’s more annoying pretentions. In the hands of another author, they might have ended up as crude caricatures – the posh boy and the chippy Northern girl – but Nicholls, always a deeply empathetic writer, sketches both with compassion; he subtly makes fun of their foibles but also takes their feelings seriously.

The book picks up the pair’s tale every year on the same July dayalso known as St Swithin’s Day, as Dexter tells Emma during their initial encounter. Not everyone is a fan of this conceit: the 2009 Observer review claimed “the structure proves limiting” and that Nicholls “is a far better writer than this format allows him to be”. They don’t always spend this day together (re-reading, it’s striking how rarely the two of them are actually in close proximity), but we see how much their feelings for one another colour their existence and shape the choices they make. Nicholls doesn’t try to shoehorn too many milestones into each of those 15 Julys. More obviously significant events – difficult conversations, ill-advised kisses – often take place off stage, so their romance doesn’t follow a conventional shape.

One Day doesn’t bother with the “enemies to lovers” trope that has become so popular with today’s romance readers. It’s clear from the off that they fancy each other, and that they might even be a good match, but over the next 20 years, we see them circling around the obvious, and being held apart by geographical and emotional obstacles, like Dexter’s seemingly endless Indian gap year, his cruel arrogance when he eventually finds minor fame as a coke-sniffing Nineties TV presenter and Emma’s chronic self-deprecation. “Failure and unhappiness is easier because you can make a joke out of it,” Dexter writes to her in a drunken but perceptive letter from India; of course, he forgets to send it, setting up one of the book’s many “what ifs”. Nicholls wrote One Day just after he had adapted Tess of the d’Urbervilles for the BBC, and has said he borrowed this idea of a missed message – one that might have changed the protagonists’ lives – from Thomas Hardy’s story.

Remake: Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall as Emma and Dexter (Teddy Cavendish/Netflix)
Remake: Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall as Emma and Dexter (Teddy Cavendish/Netflix)

Despite the “sad bit at the end”, as my mum put it, One Day is (unlike Tess) an excellent comfort read. Emma and Dexter are such great characters that returning to them feels a bit like getting back in touch with old pals. Even so, it can be frustrating to watch the pair’s bad decisions and foot-in-mouth moments play out (the scene in which Dexter tells Emma, fresh from her PGCE course, that “those who can do, and those who can’t, teach” will always make me convulse with second-hand embarrassment). But the book also affirms just how significant one 24-hour period can be. It shows how those ordinary days (and ordinary mistakes) might, over the course of a lifetime, add up to create some bigger narrative, which, when you’re feeling a bit lost, can be a very consoling thought.

I’ve found that every time I’ve picked up One Day again, a different period of the protagonists’ lives has jumped out. I first read it just before starting university, when Dexter and Emma’s dramas seemed wonderfully adult but still distant. In my twenties, it was the passages pinpointing the confusion of trying to decide what you might want to do with your life, and the crushing disappointment when things don’t quite go according to plan. Currently, it’s Nicholls’s brilliant description of what he calls “the third wave” of weddings, when “every week seems to bring another luxuriantly creamy envelope, the thickness of a letter bomb, containing a complex invitation”. I wonder which scenes will resonate when I return to One Day in five or 10 years’ time?