Two books, one post. I want to speak about these two bestsellers together because they are so similar yet polar opposites. Like the tiny angel and devil sitting on your shoulder – one telling you about the sweetest possibilities and the other, well, not so much.
But let’s start from the beginning. One Day is a 2009 novel by David Nicholls that quickly reached bestseller status and was made into a movie starring Anne Hathaway in 2011. I have read the book – in parts at least – an estimated 5 times over and lent my copy, gifted a copy, or at least recommended it to everyone who asked for quality romance or a lighter read in the last decade. Of course, the film paled in comparison but I can’t really be angry at anything starring Anne Hathaway, so I guess if you’re absolutely not the reading type, I’d recommend the film too. But also, if you absolutely aren’t the reading type, this blog post is not for you.
Normal People by Sally Rooney came out in 2018, was longlisted for the Man Booker Price and also won a bunch of other smaller book prizes and recommendations all around the world. It was also made into a television series which premiered in some English-speaking countries April 2020 – a fact I just learned from Wikipedia. I have not seen the television series an just read the book for the first time a week ago.
Not that we’re all caught up on what’s there and how informed I am, let’s get into it. This will be a spoiler free post until the very prominent spoiler warning further down. Anything after that is to be read at your own spoiler risk. Everything I will mention before that either is on the back cover of each book or should be.
In One Day, we meet tentative friends Dex and Em as college students on a British holiday called St. Swithins Day (July 15th). I do not know what they or the saint is about but I do remember Dex’ and Em’s names even though I haven’t opened the book in a while. Dex is the romance archetype of the pretty rich party kid while Em is the corresponding studious, cute but shy and not classically beautiful – but of course still pretty – romance heroine. I realize, this sounds incredibly boring and overused but just wait.
In Normal People, we meet the protagonists and tentative friends Marianne and Connell – whose names I had to look up again right now – on a random day when they are in their teens. She’s a rich kid isolated in school and bullied by her family. He’s the cleaning lady’s son who struggles with self-esteem despite being not only a good-looking straight A student but also the popular school’s sports star. So, none of them is quite the cliché.
So far, you probably don’t see the any obvious connections between these two books beside them being bestsellers and possibly in the romance genre. Well, that’s easily fixed.
One Day plays out over 20 years, exclusively on St. Swithins Day. All we ever get to see of Dex and Ems lives is what is happening on that day each year. Sometimes with a wider context, sometimes without.
Normal People plays our over roughly 10 years, in snapshots of remarkable days – with little to no context of what happened in between.
See what I mean? We have two friends to lovers stories (in the broadest sense) that we only get to see play out as very limited glimpses into their lives. And since I know One Day so well, I couldn’t help but compare the two books in their storyline and style when I read Normal People. Now let me tell you, why I compared the two books to the angel and the devil on your shoulder earlier.
As you can tell from the characterizations alone, One Day is technically your average chick lit. Except it isn’t. Dex and Em are likeable, and mostly loveable but they are also nuanced and highly personalized. You see them grow up, grow closer and grow apart. Their personalities evolve and develop in a believable way – showing you exactly who they are to each other but also as their own people. The St. Swithins Day glimpses don’t necessarily focus on romance but on their respective life paths. Meeting them once a year on the clock gives the storyline stability and keep the story flowing in a steady stream.
Even though I do admit that I would kill for a bigger window sometimes, the format really keeps you wanting more and guessing what they will be up to in the next year. As much as some of their decisions and character flaws baffle you sometimes, you keep rooting for both of them to find their individual happiness. It ultimately a book about growing up and facing challenges of adulthood, about being friends above all else and I love how much these themes override the basic love story premise of the book.
Putting Normal People into the chick lit genre at all would be wrong. Its back cover tells you that it is a story about love but it definitely is not a love story. Marianne and Conell are both decidedly not what most people would call normal people. They both start out as incredibly weak and angsty personalities in their own rights and apparently suffer from different mental health issues. Which should make their story and development even more real, their grow more extreme or their victory despite their disadvantages even more sweet. Except, over roughly ten years, none of this happens.
Sure, they progress in their studies and relationship but nothing much changes. The storyline feels disjointed and disconnected as the different installments are very differently spaced out and differ in length. We also ever only see them in relation to each other; the only glimpses we get of their lives are in context of their relationship and each other. This made me highly uncomfortable because it left the characters very two dimensional; no one’s character and life should be known only in context of one of their relationships. Their relationship is the only focus of the book so, in a way, it’s the more straight forward love story of the two. Except, it isn’t – neither love nor much of a story.
SPOILER ALTER SPOILER ALERT
ABSOLUTELY DO NOT CONTINUE IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS
As you might have gathered, One Day is one of my all-time favorite books and a hidden gem of the romance genre. It’s clever and heartbreaking and Dex’ and Em’s story stays with you. It is not without faults of course. I especially detest the ending because it is so very pointless. I hate when authors seem to think that their books are worth more critical acclaim if they don’t have a happy ending. If a happy ending is not in the cards, okay. If the happy ending is not as happy as you thought, that’s okay too. But spending twenty years with two people who struggle back and forth but are perfect for each other just to have A FUCKING TRUCK run one of them over suddenly, is just bad form. I have read the book in its entirety only once and bawled my eyes out. Since then, I have and will always give Dex and Em their happily ever after by closing the book at the right time.
As much as I resent the ending of One Day, it is exactly that. The ending of their story. There was growth and struggle and now that chapter is closed.
With Normal People, this doesn’t happen. Sure, the book ends. But it does not have an ending, a resolution, any marker of a new chapter beginning. And I hate this way more than I could ever hate any ending. Sure, the random cut off fits in with the disjointed storytelling but it is super frustrating. As is the whole book by the way. I am just not made for broken characters who stay that way. I started out rooting for both of them, hoping for them to grow out of their childhood baggage, to make a living for themselves, to grow into themselves, to have some kind of growth or victory, together or separately. I also hoped for their love or relationship to help them achieve an of the above. None of this happens. Sure, there are “I love you’s” and some sort of support in difficult situations but in total, this relationship is absolutely toxic. Neither is mentally stable enough to support the other, their dark sides are existing very much despite and beside their relationship but there is little attempt from either of them to make anything better for themselves or the other.
I appreciate that these characters are meant to be as broken and hopeless and dark and also very much twisted by that all as possible. But I can’t appreciate that their problems are always shown in glimpses and then promptly ignored so we can learn a little more about their toxic relationship that is not helping anyone get anywhere. As they grow up, they develop new demons, but that’s all. It’s probably very interesting to some people and I’m sure it’s an art form to write characters like that but I just need some sliver of hope or of growth. And I do not want to be baited by a back cover teasing an unlikely love story when the reality of the books content is nothing like that. This isn’t love. This isn’t even a story.
If you have read either of these books, I would love to hear your take on them. Now please excuse me, I will download One Day onto my kindle as I have lent out my copy once more and really feel the urge to reread most of it again.