David Nicholls’ One Day is one of the biggest selling books of recent years, it was one of those books that you saw people reading absolutely everywhere. Interestingly it is my second most viewed review on this blog ever, with well over ten thousand views only a few thousand behind Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog so there is some additional trivia for you. It is a book I really, really enjoyed (even if it left me a wreck) and so, like many readers, I was very excited about Us when it came out last year, especially after a five year wait.
One night Douglas Petersen is woken by his wife Connie, automatically he thinks that either their house is being burgled or something awful is happening to her or their son Albie. As it happens there isn’t something wrong with Connie, though she decides to tell him that she feels that their marriage of over twenty years is finished and that once Albie is safely off to University after the summer she is going to leave Douglas and get a divorce. This is devastating news to Douglas who is still completely in love with Connie and also, though admittedly it hasn’t been all fireworks in the last few years, he thought they were happy enough, settled and happy.
On a slightly smaller scale, though not insignificant Douglas, he remembers that they have booked a huge summer holiday as a family, thinking it would be the last with Albie not the last with all of them, on a grand tour of Europe. As this dawns on Douglas so does the idea that maybe this holiday could be what cements them once again as a family and win back Connie’s heart and her love for him. What follows is both what comes after Connie’s sudden revelation and the holiday in questions, which we know is going to be a rollercoaster before we even start on it with them, and also the story of how Douglas and Connie met, fell in love, married and then ended up in the situation they are in.
The device of going back and forth in time from the opening of a novel is, admittedly, hardly anything new or earth shattering in the world of literature. Sometimes these well used tropes in writing can, when done well and by the right writer, can be what makes a novel work so well and I personally really, really liked Nicholls’ use of it in Us. I don’t know about all of you but I am someone who always wants to know the ins and outs of a relationship; how people met, the funny stories of years of a relationship, the highs and the lows etc. With Us, Nicholls’ gives us theses in abundance from the moments a couple will tell you on any night out like how they met (see below) but also and often more fascinatingly the ones they keep just between each other.
I hadn’t spoken this much for years. I hoped, from Connie’s silence, that she was finding me fantastically interesting, but when I looked her eyes were rolled far back into her head.
‘Are you alright?’
‘I’m sorry. I’m just rushing my tits off.’
‘Oh. Okay. Should I stop talking?’
‘No, I love it. You’re bringing me down, but in a good way. Wow. Your eyes look massive, Douglas. They’re taking up your whole face.’
‘Okay. So… should I keep talking then?’
‘Yes, please. I like listening to your voice. It’s like listening to the Shipping Forecast.’
Nicholls is brilliant at characters and their relationships. He can build a character in a sentence using the oddest yet most realistic and human of quirks, like them being described as the shipping forecast by others etc. He is particularly good at relationships, be they platonic friendships (which we see less in this novel), those between a couple and those between a parent and a child, which is really the second biggest theme in the book alongside middle age. Us is very much about the relationship between a father and their son, something which was particularly close to Nicholls when he wrote the book. This comes up particularly on the trip away, which reminded me quite a lot of one of the strands in David Park’s The Light of Amsterdam which if you loved this you should most definitely read.
Douglas himself makes for an interesting narrator. He is a quirky ‘nice guy’, someone safe, someone inoffensive and someone who sometimes doesn’t quite get or click with the world around him. That isn’t to make him a victim, though sometimes I did think he was the cruel butt of some of Nicholls jokes, he is just someone that you initially find a bit odd and then warm to him. Like many of us with our unusual quirks. His distance to the world, which is how I saw it, did occasionally make me feel a little distanced from him and therefore occasionally less sympathetic or empathetic to his plight. I also wondered sometimes if Nicholls was using this device to hold back a little and I wasn’t sure why. That said even in holding back, and indeed with distance, Nicholls is still very funny and as always human.
Other people’s sex lives are a little like other people’s holidays: you’re glad that they had fun but you weren’t there and you don’t necessarily want to see the photos. At our age too much detail leads to a certain amount of mental whistling and staring at shoes, and there’s also the problem of vocabulary. Scientific terms, though clinically accurate, don’t really convey the heady dark intensity, etc., etc. and I’d like to avid a simile or a metaphor – valley, orchid, garden, that kind of thing. Certainly I have no intention of using a whole load of swear words. So I won’t go into detail, except to say that it worked out pretty well for all concerned, with a pleasant sense of self-satisfaction, as if we’d discovered that we were still capable of performing a forward roll. Afterwards we lay in a tangle of limbs.
I have to admit I had a few niggles with the book. Occasionally the father/son stuff and Douglas being so try hard got a little bit much for me, having thought about it I think this might be that as I had no relationship with my dad, then a very difficult one before going back to no relationship, I wonder if this is just something I don’t connect with. Nicholls won me back over with family dynamics and mishaps with them as a whole on the holiday though, again because we have all been in those situations. I was reminded by my mother not long ago of the time she accidentally booked us into a brothel in Greece thinking it was a hotel, the ladies were lovely to us though – I was about eleven before that gets misconstrued, and isn’t far off what happens to the Petersen’s.
My biggest quibble was the lack of Connie’s voice in the story which occasionally I would have really liked to counteract Douglas’. Nicholls makes much of how they are polar opposites, he is a scientist and she is an art curator, so it would have been interesting to hear that voice as well as seeing what made her fall for Douglas, something Douglas himself doesn’t get, filling in a couple of the blanks I felt were occasionally left. Maybe Nicholls thought that would be too like One Day though, I wish I had asked him now, anyway… Again this was countered by the fact that Nicholls does, albeit through Douglas, look at the huge question of the sciences vs the arts (Douglas isn’t bookish, Connie devours them) which gives the book additional layers and depth. So all my niggles were flattened by the positives.
All in all, Us is another very good Nicholls novel indeed. It is a story of falling in and out and in and out of love, it is a coming of middle age novel and also a family drama, with an emphasis on comical drama, all rolled into one. I think it is also a novel that looks at marriage in modern times and how once upon a time we would fall in love with people we might grow apart from and have to put up with them, now we don’t but what does it mean for us all? I expected a novel that would leave me broken again; instead I got one that had hope.
If you would like to David talking about Us further, you can hear him chatting to me on You Wrote The Book here. I should also add that both my mother and step father have read it and were raving about it this very weekend just gone and they are much tougher critics than me (my mother even said I was being tough on it, I think this may have been that a) it was described as a divorce comedy which when you’re going through a divorce is anything but comical b) I loved One Day so much anything that followed it would have to super impress c) I did like this book a lot so get off my case mum, ha) so there is some extra impetus to read it! What about any of you, have you read it and what did you think?