I had loved ‘One Day ‘by David Nicholls so much so that I began ‘Us’ with a little fear and trepidation, because I so desperately wanted to like it. I shouldn’t have worried as just a few pages in I knew I was going to more than like it. ‘Us’ is the first novel Nicholls has published since One Day which was now an astonishing 6 years ago. I imagine after the huge success of ‘One Day’ Nicholls must have approached his next novel with some nervousness which would account for the long gap. Or of course it might just be to write a novel of such marvellousness takes a while.
The ‘Us’ of the title is middle-aged Douglas and Connie and their 18 year old son Albie. Douglas and Connie were always and unlikely match. He a methodical scientist and she a free spirited artist and yet they have been mostly happily married for 20 years. At least Douglas thought they had until Connie wakes him in the middle of the night
“‘It’s fine. No sign of burglars.’
‘I didn’t say anything about burglars. I said I think our marriage has run its course. Douglas, I think I want to leave you.’
I sat for a moment on the edge of our bed. ‘Well at least it’s not burglars.’ I said, though neither of us smiled and we did not get back to sleep that night.”
In an attempt to save his marriage and his family, he plans in characteristic detail a grand tour of Europe. Together they will revel in great art, and culture in some of the fines galleries in the land. Douglas and Connie will rekindle their love via the romance of Paris and Venice. As loving and responsible parents they will prepare Albie for his metamorphosis from sullen teenage caterpillar into refined and culturally astute butterfly. They will arrive home relaxed and lightly tanned, waving Albie off as he flaps his Botticelli coated wings and flies seamlessly into an intellectually stimulating university career. That was the plan anyway.
As you might imagine things don’t happen quite like that. Albie is a belligerent teenager and despite Douglas best efforts to get along side him their relationship gradually deteriorates. Connie regularly sides with Albie and makes no secret of the fact she feels stifled by Douglas meticulous itinerary and planning. Their trip around Europe becomes dogged by some disasters and unexpected encounters (the accordion playing New Zealander called Kat and a Danish Dentist called Freja)as their family navigates its way around capital cities and each other.
The book is written in the first person and from Douglas point of view which is wholly appropriate as really this is Douglas story. It seamlessly moves between the past and the present as we learn about the twenty- something Douglas and Connie, their early relationship, the marriage proposal and the loss of their first child. Nicholls captures that breathtaking joy of being in love.
“Light travels differently in a room that contains another person; it reflects and refracts so that even when she was silent or sleeping I knew that she was there. I loved the evidence of her past presence, and the promise of her return, the way she changed the smell of that gloomy little flat. I had been unhappy there but that was the past. It felt like being cured of some debilitating disease and I was jubilant .”
And contrasts that with the steadiness that comes from a long-term relationship.
“Of course after nearly a quarter of a century, the questions about out 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.”
David Nicholls has an enviable ability to combine tender emotion and humor and produce something beautiful. Each chapter has just the right amount of both. As Douglas becomes more embroiled in the complexities of his Geographical and emotional journey, we as readers we have the privilege of travelling with him. I loved the detail about the cities, the art galleries and in particular Douglas particular opinions on paintings, and I loved the bird’s eye view of his complex relationship with his son.
There are so many fantastic examples of Nicholls funny and heartbreaking prose that I found it hard to just choose a few. When I was reading this I regularly and irritatingly read aloud chunks of prose to Mr V , the combination of words are carefully chosen and the humour so good I felt the need to vocalise and share each time I had a little chuckle.
“I immersed my head in the water and saw the sand far, far below and all around the pink and blue clouds of jellyfish – a swarm there really was no other word….. I was far, far behind enemy lines, an impression underscored by a sharp pain in the small of my back like the blow of a whip. I reached around felt something as soft as sodden tissue paper and then the sting of the whip once more, on my wrist this time…..I saw another of the vile creatures just inches from my face as if deliberately intimidating me. Absurdly I punched it because nothing hurts a jellyfish more, nothing affronts their sense dignity, than an underwater punch in the face.”
Without giving too much away; as is the way with David Nicholls novels the ending packs an unexpected punch, and yet as I’ve since reflected on it, any other ending would not have been authentic
I adored ‘US’ and could happily read it again, and again. If you are looking for a summer read this is it. If you are looking for something you can skip through, this is it and if you don’t have much time to read this is it. The chapters are very short so its perfect for picking up and putting down, although mostly I found that I picked it up and couldn’t bear to put it down.