“You can live your whole life not realizing that what you’re looking for is right in front of you.”
David Nicholls’s acclaimed novel, tracking the 20-year friendship of Dexter and Emma, has sold more than a million copies and the film version has been released a few years back. I’ve accidentally found my copy of the book in one of the charity shops nearby and I decided to give it a go the other day.
I loved it! It’s a bit mushy and very romantic but the twists and turns will keep you wondering what’s going to happen next. The story follows Emma and Dexter – two uni friends who had a one-night hook-up of sorts after the last day of school.
Dexter kinda likes Emma, Emma kinda likes Dexter, but they don’t continue the night as a relationship and girlfriend and boyfriend and split ways. He goes to China, Italy, India while Emma decides to work in a Mexican restaurant to support her writer aspirations.
“He wanted to live life in such a way that if a photograph were taken at random, it would be a cool photograph.”
Dexter is more middle – upper class and enjoys his life as a handsome, privileged, rich white man. His parents are well off and can support his lifestyle and odd career choices. The thing is, Dexter lacks direction and purpose even though he has the money to back him up. He thinks about becoming something that sounds good when spoken in a bar, like a professional photographer as he mildly impressed a teacher with a structure called “Texture”. Then he goes into the TV business and finds it easy at first as the money is good and he goes from minor help to minor celebrity as he hosts his own show – a gig with a Cockney accent whose interesting subject was voting Britain’s ugliest girlfriend. Basically trash TV.
They go on a holiday together just as friends and even though the chemistry is off the charts, they don’t do anything they would regret except some heavy flirting.
Emma is struggling in the meantime with holding down a measly job, going on crappy dates, seeing no end at the tunnel. When she gets offered the manager position in the restaurant she was working, she starts crying – not because that’s what she was hoping, but because she can’t see a way out. She continues messaging Dexter and their lives come together every now and then.
“Better by far to be good and courageous and bold and to make difference. Not change the world exactly, but the bit around you.”
What I really didn’t like was how fame and fortune changed lovely old Dexter for the worse. Alcoholism, parties, new friends (50 new for each old one discarded) and a sense that he could tip money to people he knew (like Emma) instead of just being a friend for her when she needed it.
Emma drifts away from Dexter, goes into a relationship with a former co-worker called Ian and even though they weren’t compatible, she tries to make it work. Ian adores her and is even thinking about proposing but Emma deep down knows he’s not the one for her and refuses and then breaks up with him.
She starts working at a school as a teacher, has a short fling with the married headmaster and then starts focusing on her real desire: how to write. She is rejected by several editors and mistakenly invited to apply as a nanny to one of them. She does not let rejection pull her down and she fights forward until she manages to get a teen book published and then land a serialisation deal.
She meets Dexter every now and then – when their common friends get married – and she finds out that he is also looking to marry a beauty – Sophie – who is classy and does not smile a lot as it makes her face look ugly. I think Sophie exhibited the emotional range of a cracker but hey, if some people like that, why not?
Dexter and Sophie have a beautiful baby girl together and all of a sudden, Dexter, the playboy, drives a family van and changes diapers.
“I had always been led to believe that ageing was a slow and gradual process, the creep of a glacier. Now I realise that it happens in a rush, like snow falling off a roof.”
This change in lifestyle is hard to adapt to so he resorts to an old crutch of his: drinking a bit of alcohol and loitering around the house. Sophie starts despising him (for his crappy career, for his lack of motivation, for his lack of direction but never for his parenting) and soon starts an affair with one of her husband’s bosses and former friend. They get divorced soon after, sharing custody.
Dexter is a broken man when he meets up with Emma again in Paris. His tail is tucked neatly between his legs when he asks her whether she would consider being together with him now, that he’s single. Emma shows some spine, tells him about her literary success, about her flat in Paris, about her new beau and invites him to join them at a local restaurant. Dexter breaks down and this is when everything comes up to the surface. Years of love, of yearning, of missing out on stuff they could have done together. Emma meets him half way, breaks it off with the current boyfriend (of a mere month) and she and Dexter are finally together!
Woop woop you would say until two years after Emma dies (it happens in the movie too so it’s not a massive spoiler). Gets hit by a truck on the way to see a house with her new husband. I cried a bit, I admit, as David Nicholl is very good at portraying strong emotions like despair and solitude.
The book ends on a bitter-sweet note as Dexter remembers the first day he spent with Emma when they went to the top of Seat Arthur, an old volcano plateau in Edinburgh, and shows his now teen daughter the places were they lived and loved.
I enjoyed the format. It gives the reader snapshots of Dex and Em’s life, like flipping through a stack of polaroids, just a flash of what was going on at a particular time. Picking the same day established a sequence and highlighted that life and circumstances can change so quickly at times, or not change at all as was in Em’s case when two days start exactly the same. I think this was an intelligent way to approach a story that spans 20 years. We don’t really need a full depiction of every single event in their lives to have a sense of what they are going through.
Book was pretty well written, with loads of twists, accurately depicting the consequences of life choices and the unpredictable nature of fate. The characters are well defined and the dialogue is funny and witty and it captures some of the Britishness perfectly.
“You’re gorgeous, you old hag, and if I could give you just one gift ever for the rest of your life it would be this. Confidence. It would be the gift of confidence. Either that or a scented candle”
The stuff I liked best was the meditation upon a life with purpose or without and what hard work and money can take a person to.
“What are you going to do with your life?” In one way or another it seemed that people had been asking her this forever; teachers, her parents, friends at three in the morning, but the question had never seemed this pressing and still she was no nearer an answer… “Live each day as if it’s your last’, that was the conventional advice, but really, who had the energy for that? What if it rained or you felt a bit glandy? It just wasn’t practical. Better by far to be good and courageous and bold and to make difference. Not change the world exactly, but the bit around you. Cherish your friends, stay true to your principles, live passionately and fully and well. Experience new things. Love and be loved, if you ever get the chance.”
“Live each day as if it’s your last’, that was the conventional advice, but really, who had the energy for that? What if it rained or you felt a bit glandy? It just wasn’t practical. Better by far to simply try and be good and courageous and bold and to make a difference. Not change the world exactly, but the bit around you. Go out there with your passion and your electric typewriter and work hard at…something. Change lives through art maybe. Cherish your friends, stay true to your principles, live passionately and fully and well. Experience new things. Love and be loved, if you ever get the chance.”