Emma Morley's had her eye on Dexter Mayhew for years and just as they graduate from college they spend the night together. Dexter leaves to travel but over the years they keep up a friendship tinged with longing. Life sends them in opposite directions but they continue to come together (and continue to part). Author David Nicholls portrays this story of missed connections through detailing one day in their lives each year after their 1988 one night stand. Will they make it work?
This is a good thing. And in saying this in no way am I seeking to diminish the venerable Hornby, whose Juliet, Naked I much adored. But is there a formula at work here? - oh yes. There's a plot but it's secondary to all the witty dialogue and overflowing desire. Author David Nicholls is seeking not to build a novel, per say, but something wholly entertaining and relatable, to map the ordinary person's emotional landscape.
If you're obsessed, as I am, with trying to wrap your head about how people (me! you!) can be so smart and yet so emotionally incompetent, how life can trump our best intentions, then this type of book is addictive.
Nicholls is also genius at illuminating the small, yet significant, nuances of day-to-day life - its triumphs, petty jealousies, fears and such. Emma Morley, not particularly extraordinary but smart as a whip and funny as hell, comes across brilliantly here. She's relatable but not in a grossly devised way and she makes for the perfect down-to-earth heroine:
Of course there's still no boyfriend, but she doesn't mind. Occasionally, very occasionally, say at four o'clock in the afternoon on a wet Sunday, she feels panic-stricken and almost breathless with loneliness...at the best of times she feels like a character in a Muriel Spark novel - independent, bookish, sharp-minded, secretly romantic.
Dexter Mayhew comes across much worse and I spent much of the book trying to figure out why someone like Emma would be attracted to him, other than the fact that she describes him as "beautiful" (ugh). He's a classic man-child and while Emma sets about being sensible and making something of herself, he wildly flails about, trampling over everyone in his life, including her, and trying to come to terms with the fact that he's not much deeper than a millpond in the height of a hot summer.
The book ends up coming off a bit like "Dexter Mayhew's overlong story of redemption-God bless his tarnished soul," my sole criticism. I can forgive this, though, as the dialogue is so damn funny; Emma and Dexter really do have a gift for patter. It's hard to post something without context, but here's a sample:
"Dexter cracked first, sighing and placing his book on his chest: Nabokov's Lolita, a gift from Emma ...
'What's up with you?' said Emma, without looking up from Dostoyevsky's The Idiot ...
'I'm just finding it a bit dense. It's just this bloke banging on about how horny he is all the time.'
'I thought it would strike a chord.' She raised her sunglasses. 'It's a very erotic book, Dex.'
'Only if you're very into little girls.'...
'Go to sleep then.' She picked up her Russian novel. 'Philistine.'