My mother taped a movie off of some network tv channel forever ago called Same Time Next Year starring Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn. That film had a similar premise to this novel, a premise that could have easily been hokey: a story told on the same day, over 20 years, detailing the lives of two people. But when it's done as well as David Nicholls has done it, the hokiness quickly gives way to genuine emotion and attachment to the characters. I'm not denying that there's a gimmick attached to this book, the time capsule aspect (for lack of a better comparison) is bait that you either bite or you don't, but what's amazing is that this quirky idea doesn't dominate the focus of the novel; it's just simply the vehicle through which an even more detailed portrait of the characters is drawn. By freeing himself of the conventional ties of storytelling, Nicholls has created a deeply intimate, thoughtful, and ultimately moving character study. Oh no, is my hopeless romantic starting to show?
Beginning on the night of their graduation in 1988, Dexter and Emma, have a one night stand on what turns out to be the most important night of their lives. Dexter is everything that a leading man should be: handsome, mostly intelligent, witty, and seemingly unattainable or un-trainable, depending on how you look at it. He's rakish and rebellious and all of those other R-adjectives used to describe men who possess a self-confidence that borders on arrogant, but with enough good sense to pull themselves up, just before going over the cliff, well at least some of the time. Emma is his opposite (of course). Bookish, whip-smart, attractive, but not attractive enough to incur the jealousy of other women, and more deserving of happiness than she actually believes herself to be.
On the 15th of July, every year for the next 20 years, what is presented are glimpses of a relationship that, despite both Dexter and Emma's best efforts, stands the tests of time. I realize that "tests of time" is a terribly banal turn of phrase to use here, but in this instance, it truly does fit. Through vacations, weddings, affairs, divorces, children, and sometimes just plain stubbornness, what emerges is an authentic look at the relationships that change people, the relationships that change us. While the two characters sometimes seem a bit stereotypical, and while this is, at its heart, a romance, with Nicholls beautiful prose and realistic approach to situations, it turns in to much more than your mother's beach chair companion.
By the end of the novel, it should be plain that the title does not simply refer to the chronological set-up of the book, it also refers to that often-used answer that most of us give as an excuse for putting off the things that really make us happy; you know, we'll get to it, one day, I mean there's plenty of time right? What Nicholls so wonderfully captures are moments, snapshots of moments, the idiotic, angst-filled, anger-fueled, awkward, hurtful and, sometimes, just plain happy moments that create situations and reactions that we, as mere humans, cannot guess the repercussions of. Even, as a reader, although we think we're trained to know who belongs together and how things will end, just like life, the book takes some unexpected turns.
While sometimes feeling stretched, the situations never really feel forced or completely impossible. The characters don't always get what they want and the most convenient path is often the one that Nicholls refuses to take as an author, which is refreshing. With a novel entirely focused on two characters, the dialogue and banter better be good, and here it really does shine. The descriptions are never over-wrought, and while it's not exactly re-inventing the wheel, this kind of feels like the literary equivalent of outfitting your wheel with some nice, expensive chrome rims. I mean, if I was in a fight with someone I would probably ask David Nicholls to write my comeback quips for me. There is enough realism in this to make the down moments not only relatable, but even uncomfortable and yet, despite the turbulence, there's something that seems a lot like optimism at the core of it all.
I hesitate to call Dexter or Emma a hero/heroine because they're not really. They're just people, with flaws and worries and problems, hopes and dreams, and boring jobs to fill the time in between. They have no superpowers, they don't seem to possess anything remarkable, except their friendship, and when you really stop and think about it, friendship really is a remarkable thing isn't it? And that seems to be the point that Nicholls is making. While the normal tangent of a romance is discarded here, what cannot be overlooked is that it's the details that make a character; the little things, the moments that most people think of as throw away instants, that really count. While the big picture, the next year, the next five years, the future, is always the main focus for people, that constant delaying means that time is simply slipping away, melting into the mundane repetitiveness of every day life, but even in that routine, there might be a moment that we should latch on to. Sometimes our hopes let us down, our dreams crumble, or our hearts break. But if we're lucky, that won't always be the case and as Nicholls proves here, all it takes is one day, it might have even been today and you just haven't realized it yet.
Overall 4 out of 5