Book review – Us by David Nicholls
As part of my slow and faltering journey through the Booker longlist I waded into this book with a considerable amount of curiosity. Here’s why – Nicholls wrote a light frothy omlette of a book (and blockbuster) some years back called One Day, which I remember reading, and remember laughing at times and would have forgotten immediately and completely if not for the movie. All I remember was the device (the same day of a love relationship described each year for decades). Oh, and the heroine getting squashed flat by a truck in the last scene, so convincingly done that I was nearly moved to look up how they filmed it.
So I was curious as to how this new one ended up on the longlist, given that the Booker aspires to, um, more earnest fare (although not always – remember Skios?).
The book opens with an absolute sparkler of a first page, on in which you reach the bottom line and settle in with a slight grin on your face, saying – oh, this is going to be fun. Here is the setup – our hero, the first person Douglas, a scientist of little repute, has been happily married to Connie for 20 years. She is, by repeated account, someone who he still cannot believe he snagged. In short, she is gorgeous and sparky and impulsive, he is plain and fusty and practical. Then on page 1, she tells him that she thinks their marriage is has run its course, and she wants out. Such is the shock of this, that he, well…that’s why page 1 is such a cracker.
Then there is their 17 year old son, a dark and moody boy with whom he has a near-estranged relationship, so strained and tortured, so bruised with misunderstandings and misinterpretations, so littered with the best and broken intents of fathering, that I could hardly bear to read it (with my bright-eyed and beloved teenaged boy lying on his bed next door noodling endlessly on Instagram).
So a trip is planned before his wife intends to head off for greener pastures, and before his son becomes a stranger. This trip is a grand tour of the art galleries of Europe (a well researched travelogue of its own, a feast for art-naives like me). And thus the story of their marriage and life is told, flip-flopping between the grand tour and its attendant mishaps, and what transpired over the last 20 years of this marriage.
Will he win Connie back? Will he find common ground with the son he loves? Well, this is the engine of the story, and I wish not to spoil. It is about the illusions of permanence and the nature of second chances and love’s uncommon ways of being given and taken.
The book is often funny (although perhaps a little overheated in the wisecrack department, a malady with which I have occasionally been similarly afflicted). The voices are clear and strong, the language fluent, the narrative unencumbered by weighty digressions, the emotions authentic. And it finishes strongly and satisfyingly, perfectly pitched to the last word – a rare pleasure indeed.
But, still a light meal. To which I say, we all deserve one occasionally, particularly after the sometimes exhausting spelunking of darker literary caves.