Us is the story of a marriage that may or may not be ending, how it got that way, and what a man in love will do to hold onto what he’s about to lose.
Main character Douglas Petersen is a desperate man. His wife has just informed him that once their teen son Albie leaves for college in the fall, she’s planning to leave too. According to Connie, their marriage has “run its course”, and it’s time for her to move on to the next chapter of life.
Douglas is an odd but determined man. He’s a scientist, very logical, very methodical; the opposite, in many ways, of free-spirit Connie, who was an artist when they first met but has since moved into the business side of the art world. And then there’s their son Albie, a typically sullen 17-year-old with nothing, it seems, but contempt for the father who just doesn’t get him.
The family has a European vacation planned for the summer, the classic “Grand Tour”, and Douglas views it as a last chance to save his marriage and hold his family together. And of course, it’s a complete disaster. Douglas has every step of the trip planned down to the minute, including viewing every piece of important art and historical artifact in Europe, with no time left in the schedule for spontaneity or fun — which pretty much encapsulates his approach to life in general. Finally, there’s a blow-up, and Albie takes off on his own, leaving Douglas to pursue him in a one-man quest to make amends and repair something that may be irreparable. And, Douglas thinks, if he can come home triumphantly with Albie by his side, Connie may see the error of her ways and stay with him after all.
Nothing goes as it should. Douglas is a crazy smart man, but his people skills are sorely lacking. Time and again, he does just the wrong thing at just the wrong time. It’s no wonder Connie wants out and Albie wants away. Douglas must be insufferable to be around — and yet, Us is Douglas’s first-person narrative, which is a wonderful trick on the part of the author. Seen from the outside, Douglas would be awful. But seeing through his eyes, the picture is quite different: Here’s a man, full of awkwardness, madly in love with his wife from the moment he met her, who tries his best, yet always comes up short. His perception of the world around him makes perfect sense; it just doesn’t necessarily mean that the world understands.
Us is a sad story of what happens to a marriage over the course of many years, no matter how much love it starts with and how much true caring exists between the partners. Over time, the newness erodes, and familiarity takes the place of discovery:
Of course, after nearly a quarter of a century, the questions about our distant pasts have all been posed and we’re left with “how was your day?” and “when will you be home?” and “have you put the bins out?” Our biographies involve each other so intrinsically now that we’re both on nearly every page. We know the answers because we were there, and so curiosity becomes hard to maintain; replaced, I suppose, by nostalgia.
The writing in Us is absolutely sparkling. This is one of those books that will make you very annoying to your friends and family, as you’ll be wanting to read the clever and funny bits out loud constantly — and there are clever and funny bits on every page.
She looked fresh, healthy and tasteful, and yet I found myself instinctively wanting to do up an extra button. I wondered if I might be the only man in the world to have dressed a woman with his eyes.
Douglas may be a rigid and opinionated middle-aged man, but he’s also funny, smart, and full of love, even though the love he feels never quite translates into dialogue that sits well with his wife and son. They’re constantly amused at his expense, seemingly cool and in the know in a way he can never be.
A humorous (yet sad) ongoing theme is Douglas’s inability to understand art — particularly sad, given that his wife is an artist. He’s always stuck for what to say in a museum, resorting to either parroting the audiotour narration or making inane observations on the colors or details of a painting. “Look at the reflection in his eye!” or “I love the blue!” And the more desperate he is to connect, the more he fails:
They stared and stared and I wondered, what was I meant to take from this? What were they seeing? Once again I was struck by the power of great art to make me feel excluded.
Finally, it takes Douglas’s hitting an emotional bottom of sorts and finding himself completely bereft of his usual resources and coping mechanisms before he’s able to achieve any measure of rapprochement with Albie. The father-son relationship is not easy, but there’s still love there, despite the years of snarkiness and incomprehension.
“Da-ad!” he growled, shielding his eyes against the light. “What’s up?”
“I got jumped. By some jellyfish.”
He sat up. “In the water?”
“No, on the land. They took my keys and wallet.”
Interestingly, towards the very end, the author takes a few pages to show us how the same story might have been told by Connie or by Albie, and of course, it’s completely different. And yet, it’s thanks to Douglas’s narration that the not so very unusual tale of a disintegrating marriage becomes something unique.
Us is funny and sad, familiar in its slice of life approach to ordinary people, and yet with many moments that are surprising and unexpected. Any family has its ups and downs; any long-term marriage has its pain, boredom, and exasperation — but there’s still hope, and tenderness, deep caring, and the possibility that there are still more surprises and fresh chapters to explore.
I recommend Us wholeheartedly. Full of crisp, snappy writing and quirky yet relatable characters, Us is a story of love, how it can change over time, and what it means to be a family. For anyone who enjoys contemporary fiction about people and relationships with a ring of truth, don’t miss this terrific new novel.
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About the Author:
David Nicholls’s most recent novel, the New York Times bestseller One Day, has sold over 2 million copies and been translated into thirty-seven languages; he also wrote the screenplay for the 2010 film adaptation starring Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway. Trained as an actor before making the switch to writing, Nicholls’s previous novels include Starter for Ten (originally published in the U.S. as A Question of Attraction), adapted into a film starring James McAvoy, for which Nicholls also wrote the screenplay; and The Understudy. He continues to write for film and TV as well as writing novels and adapting them for the screen, and has twice been nominated for the BAFTA awards. He lives in London with his wife and two children.
Author: David Nicholls
Publication date: October 28, 2014
Length: 396 pages
Genre: Adult contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours
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