Us by David Nicholls
I sat down to write this review for Us by David Nicholls, his latest book after the highly successful One Day, which will be available at the end of September. I found I didn’t quite have all the words I need for this kind of book and the roller-coaster of reading I had just been on. It was amazing, frustrating, heartbreaking, life affirming.
It may seem like a simple story – a crumbling marriage, a grand tour around Europe with a bored and moody teenage son, a moment of daring to do the right thing and save the relationships – but Us is so much more. It’s a deeply felt, resonant novel with characters so real you feel more like you’re talking with them over coffee then reading from ink and paper; it’s about life and the things that define and shape a person from youth to middle age.
Us is in no way a light read, amidst the humour and tropes of a British family on holiday is a deep melancholy of a huge life history – these characters are not half-baked, half-formed teenagers trying to decide who they are. Connie and Douglas Petersen are in their 50s and have so many histories, influences, flaws, complications that make them almost exhaustively real. After a while this book, Douglas’ voice, takes on a life of its own and ceases to be a simple story about beginning life again. I dread to think how many years a book like Us must have taken to write – it truly is flawless and indescribable, the depth these characters have.
So, after my rambling, you probably want to know the plot… Douglas and Connie have been married for almost 25 years, their relationship idling slowly with limited effort on either side, when Connie reveals that she wants a divorce. However, this revelation comes at an inopportune time, as the family have booked a grand tour around Europe as a present for their 17 year old son, Albie. Since everything is pre-booked, they decide to go ahead with it and Douglas hopes that this might be the chance to repair their relationship.
The book flicks between the present holiday and the past of how Douglas and Connie met, and their life following in the 24 years. This is where the deep melancholy of the book starts, as Douglas and Connie just don’t seem right for each other. He is a scientist, calm, down to Earth, not emotionally sensitive or adventurous. When Douglas is young you can already see him as an old man, while Connie is a flighty and adventurous, artistic, party-girl. Despite the wide ocean between their characters they date, fall in love, get married. The strain of middle class life and children eat away at them slowly. There are times in the book that I cringed in shared literary pain at the actions of these characters. This isn’t a dystopian novel where they are fighting for the wider world, rather it is just the fight against normal, everyday, boring life and how that can deeply affect and change a person (and I was very happy that ending left Douglas in a better place).
So, despite the hanging threat of divorce, the trio embark on their holiday across Europe and, of course, begins the slapstick, ‘British person on Holiday’ comedy – the kind where they don’t speak French so order the spiciest food on the menu; they don’t speak Dutch so book themselves in a sex themed hotel by mistake, and these are moments of perfectly cliched, comic goodness. But when it all seems like it is destined for a mix of farce and melancholy, a great shift happens. After a fight their son ditches them in Germany to go travelling on his own and Douglas chooses to Carpe Diem and take off across Europe to find his son (but not in a Liam Neeson in Taken way). At the very moment I was prepared to walk away from Us, I am suddenly reeled back in to the drama. Douglas’ journey to find his son becomes as much his chance to find himself and, as the character development in Us is so amazing, I was (hook, line and sinker) finding Douglas to be an amazing character by the end of the book.
When I first read One Day, David Nicholls’ other book, I found it a traumatic and scarring ending with a deep sense of betrayal (if you’ve read the book you’ll know what I’m talking about) so I was really glad that when Us wobbled into that kind of ending, it swiftly changed course and provided a fantastic, realistic and fitting ending for the characters. It’s not a book about sunshine and roses and love conquering all. It is a book about life, loss, humour, adventure, family… Us…
When this book hits the shelves, do not miss out on a truly amazing novel.