It was Ernest Hemingway who popularized the term, but it was Gertrude Stein who gave him the idea. One day, while conversing about an auto repair gone wrong and how awful young people are these days, Gertrude proclaimed to Ernest that they were all “une génération perdue” – a lost generation. The Great War had ruined them, turned them into a bunch of drunk ne’er do wells, etc. Ernest said in his memoir, A Moveable Feast, that his generation was not the only one “lost.” All generations go through a lost period, he said. I believe David Nicholls, the author of One Day, would agree with Hemingway.
One Day is the story of one relationship told one day a year over 20 years, on July 15. It starts in 1988, and the day after a graduation party during which Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley officially meet. Their relationship is rocky at best over the years and each chapter highlights what happens to them as they live separate, yet connected, lives. Emma flounders in her work, despite an excellent degree. Dexter flourishes as a TV personality, but drowns himself in booze and drugs. Just as Emma is finally settling down into a teaching career, Dexter treats her so badly that she may permanently end their friendship. Fear not, fellow readers, that watershed moment only signifies the climax of the book. It is, as they say, all downhill from there.
Emma and Dexter are part of a lost generation, just as Hemingway and his friends were. I remember the 80s well. These characters are only slightly older than I am, but I can still relate to the story quite well. It is set in the UK, but that does not seem to matter at all. The problems are the same. The longings are the same. The questions are the same.
There was a time when decisions seemed to rest more on what others wanted and less on what the individual wanted. My great-grandfather, for instance, became on apprentice baker because that was what he was told to do. Nowadays, we are asking five year olds (seriously, mind you) what they want to do when they grow up. Last year, my son Lucas answered this question for the fourth time in as many years with a unique response: I want to be a cop. Really? Never once in our conversations at home had he said being a police officer seemed interesting to him. He wrote it just to fill in the space.
Emma did not know either and was not lucky enough to fall into work as Dexter was. She was not lucky in lust, either, as Dexter was. To her and everyone else, Dexter was a star, but his reputation went into the toilet with all the money he spent on drugs and alcohol. With every passing day, Dexter is edging closer to the sewer with his behavior that displayed his self-loathing and self-consciousness. Even after Emma settled into her teaching job, her behavior displayed her fragile maturity. Emma has an affair with the Headmaster of her school – how cliché. Dexter ends a bad marriage when he finds out his wife cheated on him with his college roommate.
Finally, we see some signs of maturity and hope! After Emma ends the affair, she misses an important meeting at school for a more important meeting with a publisher. The Headmaster threatens to discipline her for missing the meeting. Instead of resigning herself to a life of constant haranguing from the former lover, Emma does the right thing and resigns from the school. Dexter shuffles off to a small flat to regroup after the divorce. Emma finally gets an offer to complete a novel she started. After it starts selling well, her publishing house offers her a contract to write two more using the same main character, Julie Criscoll. She moves to Paris for research purposes. Dexter joins her there for a weekend that turns into a months-long stay. They decide they cannot be apart any longer and want to spend the rest of their lives together. At this point, I imagine every reader thinking, “It’s about time!”
Ah, Paris. On the streets that Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Hughes, Orwell, Joyce, Stein, Picasso, Dali, and others roamed looking for themselves, Emma and Dexter find each other. As readers, we are happy for them, even if we had to wait over 300 pages for them to realize they might do better together than apart. So many “if onlies” later, they are finally going to do something good for themselves and each other. Damn, that was a long 15 years.
The book does not end there but I will not spoil it for you. What I will do is wrap up this post by urging everyone to read this book. I believe that everyone will see something of themselves in the characters. Hemingway was right to tell us that every generation is a lost generation. We all have to find our way. Even parents can try to help, but it is almost inevitable that each of us has to go through the pain of growing up at our own speed, in our own time, and with our own heartaches. Even the characters in the book that seem successful are struggling somehow. Some are not aware of it, others are. We are all looking for our way. Never stop looking. Go to Paris. Alternatively, you could bring Paris to you. After all, Hemingway insisted Paris is A Moveable Feast.