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Engaging 'One Day' offers true artistry, true romance

British author David Nicholls' new novel, "One Day," is what the movie guys call "high concept" -- so heavily dependent on a simple premise that you can put it in an easy-to-grasp sound bite. (The ultimate high concept movie? "Snakes on a Plane." Hear the phrase and you can imagine the rest.)

In the case of this smart and engaging novel, the concept is this: Guy and girl meet for the first time and have a fling on their college graduation day, July 15, 1988. Then they go their separate ways.

For the next 20 years -- every July 15th we check in on them and their relationship.

That's it. The wonderful news is that in Nicholls' hands, it works beautifully. The concept sets up the structure and the writer fills in what is too often missing in high-concept work: real artistry.

Is the concept entirely original? Not quite. "Same Time Next Year," a play by Bernard Slade and then a 1978 movie starring Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn, tracked a couple who fled their marriages to be with each other one weekend a year, every year for a quarter century. (Not too surprisingly, the movie version of "One Day" is already underway; it had to happen.)

But let's leave the concept for a moment and go to the content. What makes "One Day" work is its well-drawn characters and Nicholls' human insight.

Dexter Mayhew is a handsome, rich kid who has never worked a day in his life, academically or otherwise. Emma Morley is a pretty, but unglamorous grind who has graduated at the top of her class.

They are not a match made in heaven, and only the random randiness of a graduation fling ("I'll never see this person again, so why not?") could have brought them together.

And yet. The connection is made. And, for some reason that only Cupid and Psyche might understand, it seems to stick.

From college in Edinburgh, off they go into the world -- Dexter to early success in British television, based on his looks, connections and supreme confidence; Emma to early struggles, including a grimly hilarious stint at a cheesy Mexican restaurant.

In the early years, she carries a torch for him, and, on occasion, he deigns to bask in its glow.

But, in time, their fortunes change. Dexter's glamour withers; Emma's talent and discipline turn out to be hardier plantings. And somehow, love -- true love -- appears in this unlikely garden.

Nicholls handles it all with sensitivity, perceptiveness and, most appealingly, with humor. His novel will make readers laugh out loud and its poignant ending may bring them to tears.

Range of emotion? Serious writing talent? Character development? Now those are some high concepts.

Margaret Sullivan is the editor of The News.

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One Day

By David Nicholls

Vintage Contemporaries

448 pages, $14.95 paper

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