Book Review: 'US', by David Nicholls. Sat 14/02/2015
The hugely anticipated fourth book from David Nicholls, the BAFTA nominated TV and Film screenplay writer and novelist. Following on from the phenomenal success of 'One Day' (with the author himself having adapted the screenplay for the movie), 'Us' is a bitter-sweet exploration of a marriage in crisis, as well as of parent-child relationships. It is infused with dry humour and irony, as well as some truly slapstick moments.
The book is written as a first person recount from the point of view of Douglas, a middle-aged biochemist who has been told by his wife of twenty-odd years that she's thinking of leaving him. Connie, his wife, had always been the exact opposite of him - arty, spontaneous, divergent, prone to untidiness, a party animal when they first met. Whereas he is linear, an academic, a planner, organised, rigid. So rigid that he has inadvertently picked away at his son, Albie, throughout his life in an attempt to mould him into something better. Now seventeen years old and utterly resentful of his father, Albie is due to move away to start college after the summer. Not to study to become a scientist like his father, or a doctor, or a professor, but to become a photographer, his latest affectation - where's the stability in such a career choice, Douglas asks, where's the guaranteed employment at the end, the plentiful income? Nevertheless, plans had been made for a Grand Tour of Europe, their last as a family with Albie by their side. But reeling from the shock of Connie's announcement, wouldn't it be better to just abandon the trip? No, Douglas resolves to use the trip to win back his family. And so they head off, from Paris to Amsterdam, Munich to Venice, a trip of a lifetime. Surely this is just what's needed to save his marriage?
The book illustrates the challenges of maintaining the initial best behaviour/best conduct/amiability in long-term relationships, and the anxieties of parenthood. The author expertly words his narrative to shift the reader's sympathies from one character to another. The prose flits between two time periods, the far-past and the near-past, as Doug's flashbacks intersperses with his current thoughts. This allows the author to create seamless links between then and now (i.e. Doug's memories of when they travelled in the past leading directly into events that transpire while visiting the same places now). Additionally, the vivid adventures at the different landmarks, e.g. the Jardin Du Luxembourg and the Louvre in Paris, or the Prado and Atocha station in Madrid, or the Rijksmuseum and Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, will likely revive nostalgia for readers who have also visited the same places.
Overall, the story is grounded in reality with plausible characters. What is not probable, though, is how two people so intrinsically different from each other, as Doug and Connie so obviously are, could not only fall for each other but get married and remain together for nearly 25 years. It would be similarly implausible to assume that the spark of romance that Douglas experienced with Freja Kristenson could actually lead to a permanent life-long relationship. However, the author couldn't resist the urge to go for a Hollywood, twist-in-the-tale like ending. Plus, there's the unresolved mini-mystery from Page 239. As Doug and Connie spend their last day clearing out their old family house before going their separate ways, Doug discovers an anonymous 'Happy Valentine' message in the front page of a book of Rimbaud's poetry, where someone declared their love for Doug years before. Connie denies it was from her, so who sent that? A biochemist ex-colleague? Or could it be from Fran, Connie's ex-flatmate?
This is an extremely well-crafted, effervescent, modern day family escapade. The tone light-hearted, the dialogue aerated, it's more than your average 'romantic comedy'. It may not be a literary masterpiece in the conventional sense, but the author is at the top of his game, with several sections of the novel flawlessly executed. Fans of 'One Day' and 'Starter for Ten' will find this just as engaging.