by David Nicholls
Published by Harper
5 / 5
David Nicholls brings the wit and intelligence that graced his enormously popular New York Times bestseller, One Day, to a compellingly human, deftly funny new novel about what holds marriages and families together—and what happens, and what we learn about ourselves, when everything threatens to fall apart.
Douglas Petersen may be mild-mannered, but behind his reserve lies a sense of humor that, against all odds, seduces beautiful Connie into a second date . . . and eventually into marriage. Now, almost three decades after their relationship first blossomed in London, they live more or less happily in the suburbs with their moody seventeen year-old son, Albie. Then Connie tells him she thinks she wants a divorce.
The timing couldn’t be worse. Hoping to encourage her son’s artistic interests, Connie has planned a month-long tour of European capitals, a chance to experience the world’s greatest works of art as a family, and she can’t bring herself to cancel. And maybe going ahead with the original plan is for the best anyway? Douglas is privately convinced that this landmark trip will rekindle the romance in the marriage, and might even help him to bond with Albie.
Narrated from Douglas’s endearingly honest, slyly witty, and at times achingly optimistic point of view, Us is the story of a man trying to rescue his relationship with the woman he loves, and learning how to get closer to a son who’s always felt like a stranger. Us is a moving meditation on the demands of marriage and parenthood, the regrets of abandoning youth for middle age, and the intricate relationship between the heart and the head. And in David Nicholls’s gifted hands, Douglas’s odyssey brings Europe—from the streets of Amsterdam to the famed museums of Paris, from the cafés of Venice to the beaches of Barcelona—to vivid life just as he experiences a powerful awakening of his own. Will this summer be his last as a husband, or the moment when he turns his marriage, and maybe even his whole life, around?
To say that Douglas Petersen tells his story honestly is to somewhat understate things. Douglas is blindingly, awkwardly, uncomfortably honest. The sort of honesty that makes you read this book with your hands over your eyes, peeking between the gaps in your fingers.
Douglas and Connie have been married twenty years, and if you ask Douglas, he’ll tell you that they largely have been a good twenty. Their son, Albie, is heading off to university, and Douglas looks forward to embracing the empty nest. He loves, adores, and is in awe of Connie. Nearly a quarter century into their relationship, he still can’t believe she’s his.
So when Connie says to him, in the middle of the night, that she “thinks” she wants to leave him, believing that their marriage has “run its course,” Douglas is shocked. He wants to know why. He wants to understand why. Connie says she isn’t sure what they will do once their son leaves home, and for Douglas, that’s the whole point. They will discover what to do together. They will rediscover each other.
This news come to him on the eve of the family leaving for a “Grand Tour” of European art galleries, a gift intended for Albie, a budding photographer. Douglas decides to embrace this trip as a means of securing his wife and his son, for Douglas and Albie have what you might call a distant relationship.
If you’ve read any of David Nicholls’ books, you know that he writes in a way that almost encourages you to dislike his characters. Did you really like Dex all that much in One Day? Didn’t you think he was pretty awful at times? Emma wasn’t better, with her shrewish, judgmental personality. And so it is with Us. You want to like Douglas. You want to be on his side and you want him to win back his wife and son. But sometimes you just want to yell at him to stop being so obtuse.
Douglas is a scientist, a biochemist who studies, amongst other things, fruit flies. He’s used to observing, testing, analyzing. His job requires him to devote himself to it, and he can take no step in any process for granted. How, then, can he function outside of the laboratory? How can he be a husband to a woman who is an artist, yet doesn’t really create art? Who says she wants to try something new, when marriage is still new to Douglas? Who says she needs a change, when change is an anathema to him?
As he tells us about the “Grand Tour,” Douglas also retraces his and Connie’s relationship. She was a wild, drug-taking, heaving drinking artsy woman in her late twenties, someone to whom, Douglas believes, he offered a hand to help her hop down from dancing on table tops. She is every bit as wide open as he is closed, yet she’s drawn to him. Douglas is funny. He makes her laugh with his wry, ironic observations. He also, without any boasting intended or committed, acknowledges that he’s quite adept at rocking the headboard.
But Connie, faithful readers, is an awful woman. There will be times – many, many times – while reading this book that you wonder why on earth Douglas wants to stay married to his wife. He says he loves her immensely, but why? She isn’t particularly devoted to him (she makes a decision, while they are on the “Grand Tour,” that virtually smacks him with its disrespect of disrespect and disloyalty). In fact, she regularly mocks his tour guides and planning, which only further erodes his relationship with Albie. You never get the sense that she put Douglas first, in any aspect.
Yet love her he does, even if his behavior is not particularly indicative of that. He makes a job change that seems to be almost a test of his wife’s commitment; even Douglas knows that the move will cause problems. His fantasy of what could be is just that: a fantasy. He knows, if he can’t quite acknowledge, that things won’t turn out the way he wants with this move, yet he goes ahead and does it anyway.
As much as I disliked Connie, I did like Douglas, infuriating though he occasionally was. Not as a husband, mind, but as a father. Oh, Douglas. I so wanted to pull him aside and help him see the damage he was inflicting. Not purposefully, of course, but more because he just doesn’t know better. Douglas learns how to be a father under strikingly stressful circumstances. But he learns, and he improves.
Connie? Not so much.
Sure, she does a few things that are kind hearted, but I couldn’t like her. She’s just so awful to her husband most of the time that when she occasionally grants the big gesture, I found it false. She knows what she wants to happen, and she knows what wanting those things will do to Douglas. And she doesn’t care. It’s all about Connie and what Connie desires.
Grab your tissues, because you will need them. Nicholls does not spare his readers, and he does not aim to make us comfortable. He writes about real people in real situations, and life, Nicholls seems to say, is uncomfortable at best.
This is a magnificently written book of a physical journey – the Petersen family’s “Grand Tour” – and a psychological, emotional, spiritual journey – Douglas’ examination of his marriage and fatherhood. It’s more than the story of a guy trying to save his marriage. It’s the story of a man desperate to keep the woman he loves from leaving him, because he doesn’t know who he is without her. His son is going to leave. That’s a given. Albie is headed to college, and it’s inevitable that he will leave the home. But Connie? Connie can – and should – stay. She should want to fight for this marriage as much as Douglas does. She should want to be with him as much as he wants to be with her. If she doesn’t want these things, who does Douglas become?
Sometimes you read a book and you know – you just KNOW – that you won’t like the ending. When the book is as beautifully written as this one, you have to trust the writer to know how the book should end. Your idea of the “right” ending may be different from his, but no one knows the characters better than their creator. In this case, David Nicholls gives us – and his characters – the ending we need, if not the one we want.
Check out this video of Us.
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