Book Review: One Day

Genre: Nonfiction

Star Rating: 4 out of 5

Synopsis from Goodreads: On New Year’s Day 2013, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Gene Weingarten asked three strangers to, literally, pluck a day, month, and year from a hat. That day–chosen completely at random–turned out to be Sunday, December 28, 1986, by any conventional measure a most ordinary day. Weingarten spent the next six years proving that there is no such thing.

That Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s turned out to be filled with comedy, tragedy, implausible irony, cosmic comeuppances, kindness, cruelty, heroism, cowardice, genius, idiocy, prejudice, selflessness, coincidence, and startling moments of human connection, along with evocative foreshadowing of momentous events yet to come. Lives were lost. Lives were saved. Lives were altered in overwhelming ways. Many of these events never made it into the news; they were private dramas in the lives of private people. They were utterly compelling. One Day asks and answers the question of whether there is even such a thing as “ordinary” when we are talking about how we all lurch and stumble our way through the daily, daunting challenge of being human. 

I received this book in my Page1 book of the month club box for January 2022. I was intrigued by the premise of the book, which takes one day in the life of average (and not-so-average) people across the United States, told in chapters organized in chronological order from 12:01 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. In looking at various events, Weingarten fast-forwards in many instances to interviews he conducted in 2013 to follow up on those stories. The people he features are as varied as the United States itself, from urban crime to a rural murder, from artists to politicians, from young to old, from conservative to liberal. What Weingarten manages to do is to take a microcosmic story of an hour or a few in one person’s life, bring it into sharp focus where you can immediately feel like you KNOW that person, and then make a jump to extrapolate that moment in time to a larger historical story.

For example, he opens the book with a young woman in Fairfax Hospital, who is critically ill. She’s the young mother of an infant and a toddler, and she’s working her way through nursing school. She’s been experiencing increasing shortness of breath to the point that a flight of stairs is impossible for her to navigate. Her diagnosis of idiopathic cardiomyopathy has no known cause but also no cure beyond a heart transplant, which, at this point in 1986, is only being done by a few hospitals and without a lot of success. What follows is the story of the organ donor whose heart she receives, and why transplants often occur in the early hours of Sunday morning (it’s because more accidents occur in the late hours of Saturday night among young, otherwise healthy people who make perfect candidates for organ donation). Weingarten expands the story to include the surgeons and staff at Fairfax Hospital who have been training for this moment, the initial pioneers in heart transplantation, the mortality rate for this procedure, and the struggle of the hospital to move to the forefront of this type of cutting-edge care, as well as ongoing medical developments that occurred in the two and a half decades since this woman’s surgery occurred. (For the record, the transplant was a success and she only recently passed away, having become one of the longest-lived transplant patients in history.)

This book covers American politics, including the Iran-Contra hearings, the growing drug problem in rural America, gender and race relations, the AIDS epidemic, and police reforms which stemmed from the case of a missing young woman in California. I appreciated the extensive scope of this book, but the way Weingarten’s writing made it very accessible. I learned a lot of things I didn’t know before, which I also always appreciate in a book. Weingarten’s writing style is extremely approachable and while I don’t normally gravitate towards books on late 20th century history, I found this one fascinating because of his exceptional writing and had trouble putting this one down.

My only negative comment about the book was that I felt the section on race relations (which centered around Ed Koch and race riots in NYC) was not as well developed as it could have been. The ending of the book also felt a little bit short to me, as if there was another summary chapter we needed that wasn’t included in the book. Overall, otherwise, an exceptionally good read and I will definitely look for others by this author in the future.

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