By Lisa Schwarzbaum
June 16, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

David Nicholls owes a plot finder’s fee to When Harry Met Sally? for his irresistible way-we-were novel One Day. But the perceptive English novelist and screenwriter has a gift for zeitgeist description and emotional empathy that’s wholly his own. And it’s that unexpected kick that makes this light but surprisingly deep romance so thoroughly satisfying. This is a nuanced love story disguised as a beach read. It’s also a book bound for the movies, and if done right, that movie might just be great.

The Hollywood-ready setup: On July 15, 1988, the night they graduate from the University of Edinburgh, brainy, working-class Emma Morley and posh hottie Dexter Mayhew share a bed, and almost recognize the powerful chemistry in their unlikely pairing. Almost. The point is they don’t, because Emma and Dexter haven’t lived enough yet to know who they really are, as opposed to who they fancy themselves to be. That part takes time — 20 years — during which Dex wastes most of the opportunities the universe showers on him (the women who desire him, the shallow TV career) and Emma, a writer in the making, clings to her belief that she deserves only the universe’s castoffs (the dingy waitressing jobs, the dull boyfriend).

Nicholls charts the maturing of these two Gen-X specimens by the calendar, marking July 15 as the day to check in on Emma and Dex, year after year. Along the way, the author is alert not only to how it feels to be in one’s twenties and thirties in the ’80s and ’90s, but in a larger sense, of how it feels to age. Loss lurks in the wings — don’t expect sunshine and cute quirks. But even as he explores sadness, Nicholls creates new poignancy from the old truth that a life is just a stack of days, one after another, stretching into years. One day can truly make a difference. A-

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  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 108 minutes
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