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01 July 2011

One Day: Filling the days

One Day: Filling the days

Looking for conversation starters, Sophie Lister finds relevant themes in popular culture...

It was one of those books which everybody seemed to be reading. David Nichols' One Day, with its distinctive orange and white cover, became a common sight in cafes and on trains when it was released back in 2009. Climbing to the top of bestseller lists, and drawing widespread praise from its reviewers, the tale clearly struck a chord. And at the end of August it will arrive on the big screen, starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess as will-they-won't-they lovers Emma and Dexter.

At one level, the story's appeal is a no-brainer. Catching up with Emma and Dexter at intervals after an intimate encounter on the night of their graduation, it's a classic romance, filled with frustrating complications and unspoken longings. Like When Harry Met Sally, or the unending saga of Ross and Rachel in Friends, it teases us with the characters' inability to see what is all too plain to us: that they belong together. There's an element of wish-fulfilment, too, as we imagine ourselves in their place - a mere arm's length away from the one who seems sure to understand and fulfil us, if only we could just work things out.

Scuppered ideals

But One Day does something a little darker and more complex than the average romantic drama, and it's for this reason, perhaps, that it has resonated with so many. When we meet them, the protagonists are fresh from university, full of energy and with hope for the future. But the journey they will take through the years is about more than working out whether they should be together or apart. As so many of us find in the real world, it's a journey of scuppered idealism, misplaced plans, and seemingly meaningless tragedies. Emma and Dexter both find their share of happiness, but they must also deal with the disappointments and disillusionment that come with growing older.

Both are preoccupied, when we first meet them, with the question of how they will fill the days ahead. The studious Emma is convinced that the purpose of her life is to make the world a better place, while Dexter is more interested in having "a lot of fun and no more sadness than absolutely necessary'". Though his pursuit of pleasure is eventually taken to extremes, there are few of us who won't identify with this goal at some level. It seems appealing to believe that we owe nothing to our fellow human beings or to God, and it is easy for us, like Dexter, to suppress the knowledge that we will be left empty in the end.

The flaws in Emma's philosophy are less obvious because it is built on principles which are essentially good. The story is not overly optimistic, however, about the survival of such principles in the long term. Emma is forced to make concessions, initially by an apathetic world, but eventually by her inability to live up to her own moral ideals. One Day recognises the uncomfortable reality that, though living to change the world for others is far more positive and satisfying than just living for ourselves, trying to do it entirely through our own effort is problematic.

Loss and hope

Most catastrophic of all is the inability of well-meaning philanthropy to alter life's darkest realities. When events veer into a shock scenario for which neither Dexter nor Emma's philosophy can offer any comfort, it hits home that every life - whether well-lived or wasted - must end. The story is suffused by a sense of loss: not only literal bereavements, but the death of dreams and passions, and the passing of better days. Compromise, and the cruelty of fate, seem to have the final say.

Are these the tough truths that we must all grow up and accept? Or is there hope for a different kind of life? Jesus never promises his followers exemption from the mundane or from the tragic, but he offers 'life to the full', not chasing pleasure or ticking the boxes of career, relationships and good deeds. There has to be more than just another way of filling the days. We all sense, somehow, that we're meant for something bigger.

Sophie Lister writes for culturewatch.org

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