Recently Reading: Us

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The protagonist in 'Us' by David Nicholls of 'One Day' fame, is a middle-aged, middle class and very, very suburban man. Not the kind of voice I'd usually find particularly interesting, but Nicholls' skill at pulling together a complete character means that this novel about family is genuinely touching and entertaining in the most normal and relatable of ways.

We meet biochemist Douglas Peterson as his wife Connie tells him that after almost 25 years of marriage, she thinks she'd quite like to break up. When their arty and angsty son Albie goes off to uni after the summer she doesn't really see the point in staying together. Except Douglas really, really loves his arty, liberal wife and can't imagine life without her, so that rather scuppers his plans. They had planned a Grand Tour around Europe, taking in all the cultural sights and delicacies of Italy, France and Spain as a family, before Albie heads off to study photography at uni (a bone of contention with Douglas already). Connie decides they should still go ahead with the trip as she hasn't quite made her mind up and Douglas thinks he can use the time to repair the damage done to his relationship with his son and make his wife realise she should stay with him. What could go wrong? A lot, obviously.

Nicholls intercuts the present day possible break up anxiety of Douglas and the awkward moments of their holiday with the love story of Douglas and Connie. These were actually my favourite parts of the book, a look back at how a couple who were and still are so different came to fall in love. Douglas, staid, steady and responsible is instantly enamoured by free sprited, artist Connie; his life of boring dependability a world apart from her bohemian lifestyle of sex, drugs, parties and bad relationship choices. It was so interesting to have the whole relationship told frrom one point of view, although we only ever see Connie through Douglas eyes, we are able to glean so much about her personality through their interactions. While he remains devoted, and I am drawn to Connie's non-conformist personality, the reader can still see her snappy, often self-righteous behaviour in a way that Douglas cannot. Personally, it served as a warning of mismatching relationships (I'm single and looking for meaning everywhere lol)

While 'Us' takes us through the heady days of first falling in love, Douglas' jealousy and insecurity into eventual married life, we see a portrait of family life as it really is. Arguments and selling out for financial security, the loss of a child and of parents. Douglas' narration as a fairly 'normal' guy who just wants to get on with life, for his son to work hard and get a well paid job rather than something arty, for his family to stay together and bumble on and on; it's strangely charming. He doesn't like hot food, he can't resist arguing with his son, he is a stickler for rules and regs (there's a hilarious scene where he thinks it's acceptable to demand a recount at a parents quiz at Albie's school. Connie and Albie are mortified; he doesn't clock.) He has turned into his father without meaning to.

The Grand Tour of course goes tits up and Douglas thinks that he can somehow turn it into salvation for his family. By the end of the book you have grown so fond of Douglas and his nerdy little ways and are hopeful for the couple as he really does love his family. Nicholls then throws in a series of unexpected plot twists and revelations towards the end so expertly you almost fall off the bed but it all ties in perfectly. Some writers do this for shock value and you are left unsatisfied or feel cheated; not so here. It seems it all works out as it should, even if you hadn't expected it.

A sensitive tale of love and family from an ordinary guy.

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