In brief: Douglas is a man trying to hold his wife and son close to him as they both begin to drift. Will a family holiday heal the fracture?
The good: It’s David Nicholls.
The not-so-good: I didn’t find Douglas a particularly likeable character.
Pages: 392 (ARC)
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Hachette)
Setting: England and Europe
My rating: 8 out of 10
Like millions of other people, I have read David Nicholls’ previous novel, One Day and thoroughly enjoyed it. So much so, that I read all his other books (Starter for Ten was particularly funny, in that awkward teenage university sense). Naturally, I was really looking forward to Us and practically squealed in enjoyment when it arrived on my doorstep. While I liked and enjoyed Us, it wasn’t a love crossing the stratosphere for me like One Day was. I think this is my fault, because I’m not old enough to have a son and twenty-year marriage and so couldn’t relate to all the nuances of the change of love as we age, the annoying/loving features of teenage boys and the pain of realising a life investment in one person may not work out that way. Still, Us is a wry, clever exploration of family dynamics that was an interesting read.
Us is told from the first person point of view of Douglas Petersen. He’s a man who went straight through university to a PhD, then started living the social life he’d missed out on when he met Connie. Connie is an artist, worlds away from Douglas’s life as a biochemist. Douglas (never Doug) is into fruit fly mutations; Connie isn’t adverse to the odd pill and shares a studio with other struggling artists. Somehow, they fascinate each other, fall in love and marry. Fast forward to the present, Douglas is organising a trip across Europe for Connie and son Albie before Albie goes to college (Douglas is aghast that he wants to be a photographer, no science for Albie). It’s based on a Grand Tour of old and Douglas has painstakingly organised not only flights and accommodation, but a near hour-by-hour itinerary. So when Connie drops a bombshell that she might not love Douglas anymore and Albie takes flight with an older woman, the tour is in jeopardy. Can Douglas redeem himself with Connie by finding Albie somewhere in Europe or is us about to become three individuals?
I tried hard to like Douglas, I really did. His science is perfect and he tries hard to understand his family’s choices that seem baffling. But he’s just plain awkward. He is the King of Dad Jokes and King of the Faux Pas. This was funny at first and then became a little grating. Not all scientists are like this in real life, but I would have opened that Douglas would have had a better understanding of some of the world in his fifties. While his intentions are admirable, his execution of them can be cringeworthy. Plus, it took some time to see growth of his character in the story.
Connie was set up as Douglas’s opposite – she’s free, rule breaking and pretty much took Albie’s side in every petty argument he had with his father. I don’t know if Connie did this deliberately to wind Douglas up or she was trying to emphasise the point to him that they were no longer compatible partners. She seemed insipid at times, not caring what Douglas did and clingy at others (repeated frantic texts). Albie – well, he fit the stereotype too, this time of bored, rebellious teenager and object of argument. The poor kid didn’t get much of a role beyond being Douglas’s adversary until his hero moment late in the book. This part I thought had all the hallmarks of Nicholls’ work – funny, sad, crazy but hopeful. The other part I loved were the titles of each chapter and how they linked together the present and the tale of Douglas and Connie’s relationship. The story is very well crafted and the plot moves along beautifully, but I think my failure to connect with the characters made this less of an experience for me. If I was able to relate to the situations, I think I would have loved Us.