Making an enduring love affair, especially one thwarted by time and circumstance feel wholly and immersively believable is no easy feat.
Especially when you are also trying in the grandest of all romantic comedy traditions to keep the escapist magic alive and well too.
But Josie Silver manages it with aplomb in One Day in December, upping the romantic wonderfulness of it all by placing much of the love story that takes place at Christmas while some keeping it all very grounded in the contradictory mess of everyday life.
It may sound like a balancing act beyond belief but every page in One Day in December makes some of the more fantastical elements and contrivances, the lifeblood of any rom-com, feel like something that could and does happen, an important element in stories that provide escape from the grimy sameness of life but which still need to feel real enough that readers can aspire to them in some form or another.
It helps that the way that Laurie James and Jack O’Mara meets is very much weighted in the oppressively exhaustive atmosphere of the festive season.
Even if you love Christmas, as this reviewer does with a passion, there is an almost unavoidable sense that every last task in the world has a deadline sometime in the mesmerising lovely month of December, all of which have to be done and done to exquisite perfection.
“Lead-heavy defeat crushes the delicate, ridiculous hope as reality creeps in. I can’t do it. Of course I can’t. She has no clue, and Jesus, she’s so happy. It shines from her brighter than the star of fucking Bethlehem. It might be Christmas, but this is actual life, not some crappy Hollywood movie. Sarah is my best friend in the entire world, and however much and for however long it kills me, I’ll never silently, secretly hold up signs to tell Jack O’Mara, without hope or agenda, that to me he is perfect, and that my wasted heart will always love him.” (P. 33)
This is very much how Laurie is feeling as she rides home in London one night on a crowded double-decker bus, silver tinsel tied into her bedraggled hair, awash in Christmas festiveness but desperately tired and just wanting to get home and be done with the unthinking rat race for another day.
But fate, practicality defying fate, has altogether other ideas and from her organ-crushing eyrie atop the bus, she sees a man at a bus stop, who also sees her and they somehow know instantly that each other is the one for them.
It’s a moment of life transcending bliss and wonder, in the heart of a fractious commute no less, but so crowded is the bus that Laurie can’t get off nor can Jack get on and the bus sails off, leaving to seemingly be apart forever.
So close and yet so agonisingly far, thinks Laurie, as she spends the next year trying to find Jack wherever she goes.
It all seems fruitless until Jack finds her at a party one night; that sounds like a fairytale come to life until you know that the reason Jack is at the party is because he is the new love of Laurie’s best friend Sarah’s life and thus completely off the table.
That seems to be that then which might seem like it kills off all the festive magic and wonder with one decidedly awkward meeting but wait fate isn’t done with Jack and Laurie yet and One Day in December has a great deal of fun getting these two star-crossed lovers to their inevitably happy finish line.
One of the genius aspects of this thoroughly enjoyable and surprisingly emotionally resonant piece of writing is how Silver manages to make a foregone conclusion feel like it completely and utterly unattainable.
She does this by weaving complication upon complication into a narrative which despite its many twists and turns never feels convoluted nor stacked with messy detours for the sheer sake of it.
Nor does it ever feel like it couldn’t all possible happen.
That’s because, despite its many contrivances, the storyline is always grounded in the everyday business of living, loving, sorting out a career, finding a place to live, and getting on with getting older and semi-wiser which is what Jack and Laurie do over the nine-year span of the narrative.
Christmas is a major pivot point in the plot for obvious reasons and while the most wonderful time of the year is used to maximum effect to create a sense of time and tinsel-draped place, it remains centred in the fact that for all the fabulous things that the season brings, it is but one month in a long and eventful year where all the magic of one moment can be undone all too quickly by the banality of job searches or the sorrow and heartache of relationships failing, never to be seen again.
One Day in December makes the very most of its awww-inducing moments but it balances out the beauty of falling snow, present buying and stolen kisses with the kind of grinding reality with which we are all far too familiar.
“I nod, unsure of what to say because I’m more than a tiny bit furious with Jack O’Mara. He didn’t make a great job of explaining to me what happened with Sarah, something about realizing that good enough is enough enough, that they were each other’s ninety per cent. I was probably sharper than I should have been; I said that holding out for one hundred per cent was unrealistic, a dangerous and childish experiment which was highly likely to result in a lifetime of meal deals for one.” (P. 234)
For all its less than heady does of real life, however, One Day in December does feel hopeful and wonderful and not simply because we know the inevitable point at which it must conclude.
Throughout the novel, life cruel swipes and thoughtless asides are balanced with transcendent moments where two close friends spend memorable time with each other or a daughter shares a magical walk down the aisle with her father or a long sought-for job is snagged and life is changed forever.
In other words, while Laurie and Jack’s long-simmering, often-turned aside romance is the thing, it is not the only thing, with Jack and Laurie, and those in their orbit, lead full and productive, if typically flawed lives.
That’s a relief because thrilling and delightful though love sweet love is, if that’s all there is, if the entirety of these two people’s lives pivot on Cupid’s confirmation of their love then it all feels a little bit hollow.
But they are full and complete people leading gloriously even and typically fractured lives and so when love is finally given its moment to shine, it is the cream at the top of the cake and not thankfully the cake itself.
Sweet though it is to think of being completed by someone else, love works much better if you can stand on your own two feet and if your relationship is the consummation of who you are and not every last part of you.
That’s a lot to ask of any relationship, and Silver never asks it once of Laurie and Jack, choosing instead to let them lead lives rich in all kinds of other things from satisfying careers to good friends and loving families where love, though it is vital beautiful and inevitably glorious, is simply the final, fantastically good piece of a far more complex and lived-in puzzle.
In One Day in December, Christmas is the star player in many respects but far more prominent is the fact that for all its cruel and unusual moments, life can offer up some miraculously good things, one of which is the selfless love of another human being, whose very presence can add the kind of magic to our lives, such that while the festive season is wonderful, life on all 365 days of the year can beat it all hands down to deliriously happy effect.