Reviewed by Laura Marriott
Us is David Nicholls’ fourth novel and the follow up to 2009’s surprise hit One Day. Nicholls is an award winning author and screenwriter whose earlier books have been turned into successful and much loved movies, bringing his characters and take on love to a new audience.
Us is a portrait of a couple who are in danger of falling apart. It is, as his other novels are, an investigation into love; into what happens to a couple when they marry, have children and spend twenty years investing in each other, and then find that perhaps it hasn’t been enough to keep them together. However it is also a father and son love story. Many of the most poignant sections of the book come from this tangled parent – child relationship.
The novel begins with middle-aged industrial biochemist Douglas Petersen being woken in the middle of the night, to be told by his artistic and popular wife Connie that she might be leaving him. This comes as more than a little shock to Douglas:
‘I was looking forward to us growing old together. Me and you, growing old and dying together.’
‘Douglas, who in their right mind would look forward to that?’.
Despite this, they carry on with their plans to go on one final family holiday before their only son Albie leaves for college. It will be a recreation of the nineteenth-century grand tour of the cultural hotspots in Europe, designed to introduce Albie to the finer things in life. It also becomes, in Douglas’s mind, his one last chance of saving his ailing marriage, as he hopes he and his wife will rediscover themselves together, not separately, on the trip of a lifetime.
With the fear that all he loves and knows will soon be leaving him, the scene is set for a tense, often humorous, tour through Europe on which the reader is given a front row seat.
Showing his feelings and communicating them to those he cares for is not an easy task for Douglas, who seems much more reserved and conservative than his spontaneous, easy going wife. From the beginning it is their differences that both attract and separate them from each other. Douglas is always slightly out of step, both on their holiday and in his own family, never quite understanding or reading from the same script as those around him. Intellectually superior and often dispassionate he is an odd fit for the emotional race against time that the grand tour presents him with.
This is a gentle study of the way a marriage copes and evolves with the stresses and strains of life placed on it. Although love can ambush you one night at a dinner party is it enough alone to sustain you? Whilst Connie (experimental, liberal) who works in an art gallery, is able to let go and immerse herself in their travels, reminiscing about her youth, Douglas finds himself preoccupied with finances and guidebooks, trying to encourage enjoyment so much that he cannot find any. He is as serious minded as she is free and easy.
Douglas is undoubtedly flawed, most specifically in his role as a father. He finds himself utterly baffled by his teenage son. Finding early on that he and his son were grossly different Douglas chose to stand back, eschewing the challenging task of bonding. Over the years there has been a developing sense of separation, anger almost, between the two. The grand tour begins with Douglas trying to rescue his marriage and ends with him also trying to salvage some form of relationship with seventeen year old Albie.
Douglas acts as the novel’s only narrator, putting him in a privileged position, allowing us to see the workings of his mind when he is unable to express his love and aspirations. He is a particularly stiff and repressed narrator. This also means that the reader only gets to see his frankly more interesting wife through his eyes. However this allows Douglas to grow in the reader’s sympathy and esteem, as by understanding the ambitions behind his actions one can better relate to, if not take to him. The narrative links the past and present excellently, bringing out the highs and the lows from the couple’s joint past, to illustrate how they have become, as individuals and as a couple, which they now are.
It is refreshing to find a novel that deals with characters entering early middle age rather than still in the first flush of youthful love. It would be a disservice to Nicholls to describe him as a rom–com writer; he has shown his versatility and willingness to touch on the darker side of things in previous works and there is never a guarantee of a traditional happy ending. With Nicholls you also get a touch of realism and satisfaction from the journey his characters take and their respective endings.
Whether it is a couple in crisis or a man in crisis is not quite clear from the beginning of this novel: Douglas is forced in many ways to question the role he has played in the family of three over the past twenty years or so. Missed connections and continued confusion on the journey parallel those in their strained family. It is a grand tour through central Europe that takes in the evolution of a marriage, of a family. Us is skilfully written, the characters drawn with sensitivity and a warm heart that make this an enjoyable read.
Laura Marriott is a historian, theatre critic, writer and poet.
David Nicholls, Us, (Hodder & Stoughton: London, 2014). 978-0340896990, 417pp., paperback.
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