This isn't great literature, but it's entertaining and told in a subtler way than I expected, despite a tricky mix of humour and sadness. In particular, the "ending" was not at all what I expected (and the better for it), but I would have stopped the book at that point, rather than drag out the story for a few more chapters, which I think weakened the overall impact.
Dexter and Emma are at the same university and know each other by sight, but only meet properly on the evening after graduation, on 15th July 1988. Then they go their separate ways, but stay in touch, on and off. The book catches up with each of them on that date every year for nearly 20 years, through a mixture of his viewpoint and hers, including a few letters and voicemails. The format makes it quite a page-turner.
It is essentially a story of missed opportunities: Emma and Dexter were “unsure about what had happened and what would happen next” rather sums it up.
The central question is the "When Harry Met Sally" conundrum of whether men and women can just be friends, especially when there is an intermittent frisson between them.
The central problem was that I was never quite convinced why their friendship was so deep and enduring.
DEXTER and EMMA
Dexter is the indulged only-child of affluent parents: a vain, feckless hedonist. Emma is clever, idealistic, geeky and working class, with self-esteem issues.
Over the years, each has triumphs and failures and each has moments of wanting to make a move on the other. Sometimes their friendship is intense and at other times, very distant.
One aspect that I liked was the way Nicholls plays with the reader's expectations. For example, some chapters open referring to "him" or "her", but tantalise the reader for a while as to whether that person is Dexter, Emma or someone else altogether. Similarly, sometimes you read a letter or message and only later discover that it was not received.
WILL THEY... WON'T THEY... WHY THEY?
So what do Emma and Dexter see in each other that binds them over so many years? They have almost nothing in common, and she realises from the outset that he is "an idiot" with a short attention span. Perhaps he likes knowing someone "ordinary", to convince others that he is vaguely in touch with reality, but there is guilt too, most noticeably early on when he wants to leave a generous tip in her restaurant, but "Emma felt another small portion of her soul slip away". Another time "He wanted to share all this excitement with Emma, introduce her to new possibilities, new experiences, new social circles", but is it really that he wants to share, is it that he feels his life is empty, or even than he wants to show off to her? At times they reveal a deep devotion, but Dexter "knows that he can always cancel Emma" if something better comes along. Is it that Nicholls can't decide or that the characters can't? (I can’t decide which.)
Some random quotes that capture the style and atmosphere of the book – some hint at SPOILERS:
* "Nothing here [Emma's room] was neutral, everything displayed an allegiance or point of view."
* "He wanted to live life in such a way that if a photograph were taken at random, it would be a cool photo."
* Making love, a man was "taking care throughout to ensure that he was in no way objectifying her".
* "At this stage in his life, his main criterion for choosing a career was that it should sound good in a bar, shouted in a girl's ear."
* "They were immune to each other now, secure in the confines of firm friendship."
* "Over the years she had reached a level of familiarity with Dexter where it had become possible to hear an idea enter his mind... she should hear the sound of his thoughts."
* "plagiarising 'girlfriend behaviour'"
* Living with a comedian, "Life continued against this tinnitus of mirth."
* "Reading and writing were not the same - you couldn't just soak it up and squeeze it out again."
* “Envy was just the tax you paid on success.”
* “Nothing in the world could be more melancholic than an unwanted engagement ring. It sat in the suitcase… emanating sadness like radiation.”
* Sex with [x] is like a particularly exhausting game of squash, leaving him aching and with a general sense that he has lost.”
* “These days grief seems like walking on a frozen river; most of the time [x] feels safe enough, but there is always the danger that [x] will fall through.”
Overall, it reminded me of some of Jonathan Coe’s books, and I later noticed that he had supplied a cover quote.