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Sunday, October 5, 2014

'Us' by David Nicholls

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

David Nicholls brings to bear all the wit and intelligence that graced ONE DAY in this brilliant, bittersweet novel about love and family, husbands and wives, parents and children.

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2014.

'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?'

Douglas Petersen understands his wife's need to 'rediscover herself' now that their son is leaving home. He just thought they'd be doing their rediscovering together. So when Connie announces that she will be leaving, too, he resolves to make their last family holiday into the trip of a lifetime: one that will draw the three of them closer, and win the respect of his son. One that will make Connie fall in love with him all over again. The hotels are booked, the tickets bought, the itinerary planned and printed. What could possibly go wrong?

Us’ is the much-anticipated new novel from David Nicholls, coming five years after his successful ‘One Day’, which sold 5 million copies and was made into a movie starring Anne Hathaway.

After ‘OneDay’ came out, Nicholls was heralded as something of a lad-lit novelist, with Richard Curtis rom-com undertones … and perhaps for that novels’ enormous commercial success, he was marked as something of a lightweight. As Mark Lawson summarised for The Guardian recently: “assumed to be a sentimental populist by those who have read about his success rather than reading his books.” So it came as somewhat of a surprise when before ‘Us’ even hit bookshelves, it was longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. The longlisting has probably left some to wonder if there’s more to Nicholls than they first thought (undoubtedly), or if the Man Booker should go down in their esteem – but I quite liked Nicholls’ summary of the accolade: “I'm trying to give an answer that isn't too insipid, but I was extremely flattered by it, and in the same way I was a bit surprised, I'm sure lots of other commentators were surprised."

I, personally, loved ‘One Day’ – and his novel before that ‘Starter For Ten’ is also a favourite of mine. And while he hasn’t released a book in five years, I’ve also enjoyed following his television-writing career – his most recent TV movie ‘The 7.39’ was particularly wonderful. So I was just excited to read something new from Nicholls, accolades or no, because I find his books to be both comforting and mildly confronting as he explores rather ho-hum aspects of middle-class existence with cutting humour and uncomfortable introspection. I loved ‘Us’, and will mark it as a favourite of 2014.

‘Us’ is about the Petersen family Grand Tour of Europe – London, Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Venice, Florence, Siena, Madrid and Barcelona – with Connie, Douglas and their 18-year-old son Albie who is about to go off to college and study photography. But the Grand Tour is a more weighted affair for Douglas, who a few weeks previously was told by his wife that she intends to leave him:

‘Is it really so … horrific to you, Connie, the thought of you and I being alone together? Because I thought we had a good marriage …’ 
‘We did, we do. I’ve been very happy with you, Douglas, very, but the future–’ 
‘Then why would you want to throw that away?’ 
'I just feel that as a unit, as a husband and wife, we did it. We did our best, we can move on, our work is done.’ 
‘It was never work for me.’ 
‘Well, sometimes it was for me. Sometimes it felt like work. Now that Albie’s leaving, I want to feel this is the beginning of something new, not the beginning of the end.’ 
The beginning of the end. Was she still talking about me? She made me sound like some kind of apocalypse. 
As a man of science, biochemist Douglas believes that with forethought and planning he can use the Grand Tour as a last-ditch effort to save his marriage. But of course it all goes horribly, horribly wrong amidst the Botticellis and Uccellos of Paris and the Rembrandts and Vermeers of Amsterdam.

Douglas is our narrator, and for reasons of openness and thoroughness (and just plain common sense) he would probably be the first to admit that he’ll be an unreliable one at that. The book is told in ‘real-time’ as the Grand Tour gets underway, while Douglas also recounts his and Conie’s decades-plus marriage in flashback chapters that run concurrently to his detailing their family’s holiday from hell.

I would hesitate to call ‘Us’ a romance – because by the time we meet them on their Grand Tour, I think it is unmistakable that Douglas and Connie are at a rather perilous point in their marriage. This is further evidenced by their opposites-attracting courtship that Douglas recounts. Connie is the artistic, bohemian in their marriage, while Douglas is the Type-A personality who, try as he might, never quite grasped the spontaneity and laissez-faire attitude Connie has been trying to instil in him since they met.  But, at the same time, I would call ‘Us’ a romance of sorts, as the book is very much about the relationship between Douglas and his son, Albie.

Albie takes after his mother in all things, and since wriggling out of his father’s grasp at age eight Albie has treated Douglas with a special kind of contempt, while also harbouring a deep-seated (not entirely inaccurate) belief that he is a great disappointment to him: 

In short, my son makes me feel like his step-father. 
I have had some experience of unrequited love in the past and that was no picnic, I can tell you. But the unrequited love of one’s only living offspring has its own particular slow acid burn.

Something that struck me while reading ‘Us’ was that there is a hint of ‘One Day’ in the book, and I do wonder if the kernel of an idea was planted back in Dexter Mayhew’s relationship with his father, Steven. Dexter’s father quite openly disapproved of his son’s lifestyle choices, and Dexter was much closer to his mother (the two of them often sharing private jokes at his father’s expense). There was also something quite lovely about that relationship by the end of the novel, when Dexter’s father (knowing from experience what his son was going through) helped get Dexter through a great depression and out of bed in the morning.

I know that lots of people read ‘One Day’ and couldn’t quite champion the romance aspect, because Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew were often prickly characters and not very easy to like. Those same people will probably struggle with ‘Us’ too; as Douglas, Connie and Albie are all hard to swallow at times. But that’s half the appeal of Nicholls, for me anyway – it’s not just that he writes flawed characters, but that he writes them with such uncomfortable aplomb. If you can’t see your own flaws in them, then they’ll at least remind you of what you so dislike about other people in your life … Though, having said that and for all his flaws, there’s something charming about Douglas. I was going to write ‘pathetically charming’ but it’s not even that – he is so downtrodden and beaten in this book, but that he champions his own marriage and family is kind of remarkable, even when faced with such devastating odds;

A great deal of stress is placed on the importance of humour in the modern relationship. Everything will be all right, we are led to believe, as long as you can make each other laugh, rendering a successful marriage as, in effect, fifty years of improv. 

While reading this I did also think that Douglas Petersen has something of the Don Tillman to him (the Asperger's hero of Graeme Simsion’s own publishing phenomenon ‘Rosie Project’ and this year’s ‘Rosie Effect’). Douglas and Don are the men of science in love with carefree wives Connie and Rosie, and I can imagine that if Rosie threw down a divorce gauntlet, Don would pick it up in much the methodical, calculated way that Douglas does … but at the same time, I think ‘Us’ has more in common with Rainbow Rowell’s 2014 novel ‘Landline’. Both are about marriage-in-crisis, and begin at a crossroads in the very real possibility of separation. Rowell and Nicholls also employ similar flashback techniques, though with varying success – for Douglas, recounting his and Connie’s life together is all part of gathering the facts and empirical evidence of happier times and also trying to pinpoint where it all started to go wrong. In ‘Landline’, protagonist Georgie discovers an old rotary phone that allows her to dial her husband (before he became her husband) in the past – reliving a happier time in their courtship. I wasn’t a huge fan of ‘Landline’, and found the recounting of a marriage in strife to be quite dull … Nicholls, for his telling this tale from the perspective of stick-in-the-mud husband whose battle changes to being more about connecting with his son, was far more interesting to me.

Us’ does read like a coming-of-age novel, even though Douglas is 54-years-old when he starts having these cataclysmic revelations about his wife and life. And the book is a bit like reading a car crash in slow motion, as readers reach the inevitable conclusion far quicker and easier than Douglas ever does. But for all that this is a sad subject to be exploring (and a somewhat pedestrian one – how many marriage end in divorce now, and late-in-life divorce is also on the rise) it didn’t feel like a sad book. I laughed so much while reading, and I admired Douglas as a quiet everyday-hero who is doing something so ordinarily admirable in his life. I loved that this is really more a father-son relationship book, and that it felt like the resounding BOOM! of echoes from Nicholl’s ‘One Day’, and even ‘Starter For Ten’ which explored the absence of a father in protagonist Brian Jackson’s life.

I love David Nicholls, I’ve missed him and am quietly thrilled that despite a five-year absence, I count his triumphant return to bookshelves as a favourite of 2014.



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