Us by David Nicholls

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Us by David Nicholls

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: A mild-mannered biochemist hopes to reconnect with his wife and distant teenaged son during an elaborate European tour. This Booker-longlisted follow-up to Nicholls's bestselling One Day is a charming but unsentimental look at a family in crisis.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: September 2014
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780340896990

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Longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize

Douglas Petersen is a mild-mannered, middle-aged biochemist. He and Connie have been married for about two decades. Their son, Albie, is your average sullen teenager with a messy room and bohemian affectations. He and Douglas argue about everything, but especially about Albie's chosen career path: he hopes to be a photographer, taking after his artist mother, but Douglas wants him to study something more practical and rigorous at uni. Still, Douglas thinks things are going pretty well for his family – until one night Connie sits up in bed and tells him she thinks she wants to leave him.

The rest of this pleasant novel is devoted to Douglas's dual quest to keep Connie from going and to restore his relationship with his son. The Petersens had already booked a European tour for Albie's last summer before uni, so decide to keep their plans and see if a long holiday will be the healing experience their family needs. Of course, it turns out to be disastrous in many ways, with major sunburn, a misplaced passport and a jellyfish attack only a few of the challenges they have to face. Even worse, Albie runs off with a hippie accordionist, leaving Connie and Douglas frantic with worry and wondering if the tour can still be salvaged.

This may all sound terribly clichéd – and at first I indeed feared that that would be the case – but the deft mixture of past and present and Douglas's endearing first-person narration save the novel from being mundane. His literal-minded scientist's perspective reminded me somewhat of Don Tillman in The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion: he seems ever so slightly autistic, with workaholic, humourless tendencies, but Nicholls wisely does not take this so far as to make Douglas seem like a stereotype. He may seem a bit of a 'wet' character to start with, but let me reassure you that before long you will come to love his voice.

The other thing that makes Us work so well is the split time frame: many of Douglas and Connie's travels in the present-day story recall the early days of their relationship. Venice houses the square where Douglas proposed (though Connie did not actually agree until a month later, in a Kilburn Sainsbury's); in Paris they spot the hotel where Albie was conceived. Douglas carefully intersperses their contemporary travels with anecdotes of how he and Connie met at a party of his sister's, fell in love despite all their differences, and survived two traumatic events early in their marriage. The contrast allows for bittersweet observations on the effects of ageing: 'Time being what it is, we got older. We thickened and sagged in ways that would have seemed implausible, comical even, to our younger selves.'

As in his best-selling One Day, Nicholls shrewdly avoids making this a purely idealized romance story. Douglas acknowledges that 'in real life lost souls don't meet, they just wander about' and 'The notion that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger is patently nonsense'. This is a determinedly realist novel, less formulaic and sentimental than One Day, and with an ending that just might surprise you. I found it to be a very touching picture of a marriage in decline, and of a father's realisation that he needs to change his ways if he is not to lose his son forever. It is a gently tragicomic tale, with the madcap humour of the travel scenes tempering the sadness of this one family's dysfunction. As Douglas muses, 'perhaps grief is as much regret for what we have never had as sorrow for what we have lost.'

Further reading suggestion: Read One Day, if only to see what all the fuss is about. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, also set over the course of a major journey, has a similar main character who needs to address painful events from his past in order to heal his family. We think you'll also enjoy The A-Z of You and Me by James Hannah.

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