‘Us’ by David Nicholls tells the story of Douglas Petersen, a middle-aged biochemist whose wife, Connie, suddenly announces that she thinks their marriage of twenty years has “run its course” and that she wants to leave him. Despite their problems, the couple set off on their long-planned family holiday touring western Europe with their teenage son, Albie, before he leaves home to study at university. However, Douglas hopes the trip will help him win Connie back and convince her to save their marriage.
Five years on from the enormous success of ‘One Day’, Nicholls returns with ‘Us’, a novel which defies straightforward categorisation in many ways. It is a character-driven story which has literary appeal although there was some surprise when it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize earlier this year. It is a romantic comedy but not a particularly light one. As the main protagonist is in his mid-fifties, maybe ‘Us’ would be best described as a coming-of-middle-age story rather than a coming-of-age story. Either way, Nicholls successfully blends the romantic, comic and literary elements of ‘Us’ into something which is certain to have widespread appeal, especially for those who enjoyed ‘One Day’ and the equally brilliant ‘Starter for Ten’.
The voice of Douglas is engaging and consistent throughout the novel as he puzzles over his teenage son’s disdain towards him and reflects upon his relationship with Connie. Douglas is mostly serious, pedantic and unadventurous while Connie is more impulsive and bohemian and has a much closer bond with their son. Douglas is very reliable but, somewhat ironically, he soon turns out to be a pleasingly unreliable and sometimes frustrating narrator which results in him unwittingly revealing further complexities in his character.
‘Us’ follows the Petersen’s journey through Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Venice, Siena, Madrid and Barcelona. Meanwhile, their Grand Tour of Europe is interspersed with numerous flashbacks of Douglas and Connie’s relationship including how they met at a party in Balham, the sudden death of their first child and the dynamics of their marriage in more recent years. Some readers might be pleased to hear that the ending of ‘Us’ isn’t as brutal as the ending of ‘One Day’ but it is more confronting than I initially expected it to be.
‘Us’ was a surprise addition to this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist but very much deserved its place. Although I don’t think it quite delivers the same emotional punch of ‘One Day’, it is a lovely, intelligently written story which is simultaneously poignant, funny and honest.