Us is the fourth novel by British author, screenwriter, and actor, David Nicholls. With his seventeen-year-old son, Albie soon to head off to college to study photography, Douglas Petersen is looking forward to growing old with his beloved, beautiful and artistic wife of some twenty years, Connie. Unfortunately, Connie has other plans, intending to “rediscover herself” without Douglas, something that hits him hard (“It was like trying to go about my business with an axe embedded in my skull”). But before that happens, they have a final summer holiday to share: their Grand Tour of Europe, which will take in as much art and culture as they can cram into a month, a holiday meticulously planned by Douglas, a biochemist whose appreciation of art has been taught to him by Connie. Douglas is hoping this wonderful vacation can repair his relationship with his son, remind Connie of all that was so great about their marriage and thus change her mind about leaving him. The narrative alternates between the vacation and the memories of life from when Douglas first met and fell in love with Connie. Love, before Connie (b.c.), had been “a condition whose symptoms were insomnia, dizziness and confusion followed by depression and a broken heart”. After Connie (a.c.), life was altogether better: “I was familiar with the notion of alternative realities, but was not used to occupying the one I liked best.” As the holiday progresses (not quite according to plan), he reviews in his mind past incidents of family life, and in retrospect, develops an uncomfortable insight into his words and deeds, an insight that was, unfortunately, lacking at the time. He begins to realise that his “huge amount of care, an ocean of it” was perceived by others as narrow-mindedness, conservatism or caution; he begins to understand Connie’s accusation that “you can really suck the joy out of pretty much anything these days, can’t you?”
This novel is populated by characters that will feel familiar: most of us know a Douglas, well-meaning but almost completely incapable of spontaneity; Connie, beautiful, enigmatic and charming; Albie, filled with teenaged scorn for adult conservatism; the Petersen parents, repressed and disapproving (“Alcohol loosened inhibitions, and inhibitions were worn tight here”); Kat, rebellious and determined to shock. The plot is original and certainly takes a few unanticipated turns, a bit like the Petersen’s vacation: buskers, angry bikers, Carabinieri, an Amsterdam prostitute, undersized Speedos, a night in a jail cell and jellyfish were not expected to feature. Nicholls gives the reader words of wisdom that elicit nodding agreement, lines that will cause smiles, groans and, in fact lots of laugh-out-loud moments, but he also causes the eyes to well up on several occasions. Nicholls treats the reader to some marvellous turns of phrase: “I had sweated feverishly in the night, the bedding now damp enough to propagate cress” and “together we had the grace of a three-legged dog, hobbling from place to place” are just two examples.
With thanks to TheReadingRoom and Hachette for my copy to read and review