By David Nicholls
Us by David Nicholls chronicles, with extensive flashbacks, a family that may or may not be about to fall apart. After decades of marriage, the artistic wife of biochemist Douglas Peterson tells him one morning that she isn't sure she wants to be married any longer. He adores Connie and, in flashbacks from the evening they meet at his sister's flat and beyond, it's easy to see why. She loves life, she is interested in things, in experiences. Connie isn't so much a free spirit, except in contrast to the earnest, clueless soul that Dougie presents himself as, as she is vibrant.
When Connie has announced her decision, they have already planned an old-fashioned Grand Tour of the continent, taking their son as the last family hurrah before he goes to university.
It is, of course, no fun at all. The three are tetchy around each other, the madcap escapades get more out of hand.
Doug, the novel's narrator, goes on and on about things but as Connie tells him, "Douglas, you have an incredible capacity for missing the point."
He loves her perspective even while knowing it's not how he sees the world: "I didn't hate art, not by any means, but I did hate knowing nothing about it." This extends beyond paintings, of course, as in this exchange between the couple:
"I've got nothing against dreams as long as they're attainable."
"But if they're attainable then they're not dreams!"
"And that's why it's a waste of time!"
Unlike the above exchange, however, Connie doesn't always take the opposite stance from Doug. Sometimes she's one of the grown-ups in the room now too. There are moments when Connie has become more like Doug than he has become like her. Their son Albie is early on picked up by an older woman who is busking her way through Europe, playing the accordion to earn money when not scarfing down huge amounts of food at hotel buffets. Connie is as offended as Doug is when this woman, Cat, puts food in her pockets after coming down to breakfast with them. She backs up Doug when he tells Cat the Moocher to put back some of the little jars she's swiping.
So, does this mean married couples grow more alike? Or people become more conservative and not as much fun as they grow older? Or does this mean nothing of the kind and rude is rude, after all? Us is the kind of novel that lets a reader wonder about these things even as the story proceeds.
Douglas is not always easy to understand, even if he understands himself. In one flashback, he relates how his parents were even worse than Doug is about being no fun at all. And when he took Connie home to meet them, there was a political disagreement. Doug stood with Connie. But now, when this hapless, apologetic family man is in the middle of a restaurant row involving his smart remark-making son, the busker accordionist who has picked him up, his wife and some wealthy arms dealers with glossy brochures spread across the breakfast table, Doug does the worst thing possible. He apologizes for his son.
As Connie tells him: "...in a fight you side with the people you love".
Immediately afterward, Doug reminisces:
I'm aware that it sounds perverse, but what I hoped for at that time was some accident, some near disaster, so that I could be as heroic as the occasion demanded, and show the strength of my devotion.
Yes that is perverse because real life demands as much heroism and devotion and steadfastness as we can give, and then some. We don't need near disasters. We need to pay attention to the here and now. Douglas, was Connie ever right.
The turning point in the novel shows that Doug may have realized he has his opportunity to pull off some heroic deed. Or at least, what passes as one for someone like him who plans holidays by museum itineraries and is always at the airport a good two hours early. There is a chance that Douglas may redeem himself whether or not he and his son, and he and his wife, reconcile. He realizes:
... perhaps grief is as much regret for what we have never had as sorrow for what we have lost.
Indeed, Douglas, indeed. This character has just demonstrated that you never know when you are going to have a new realization about something you think you know very well indeed -- yourself.
The second half of the novel chronicles Doug's mission, with its ups and downs. It also continues his ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory whenever he says something wrong, which he still does. And the novel continues with the ability of this middle-aged man who has been alienating himself from his wife and son to become involved in outrageously ridiculous scenarios as he treks through Europe.
And yet, and yet, whenever the plot reaches a point that is OTT and a reader would not be faulted for giving up on it, go ahead and read another page. Keep going as the flashbacks shed light on how our narrator got himself into this pickle and how he remains someone who has not given up on himself, his wife, his son or on hope itself.
That there also is an unexpected development just when things are at their lowest point and Doug not only turns a former antagonist into an ally, because of honesty, changed one of the tropes of the novel. Before, whenever another party became involved with the Petersons, the outside catalyst became something that broke the pattern of the triangle of the three characters. The outside character didn't add another layer, that character instead caused a fracture.
This original structure and the changes made to it play a significant role in the way the plot plays itself out.
In between the flashbacks and the current story, Nicholls also gives Doug the opportunity for a passionate speech about modern technology, capitalism and the resulting widening of the gap between the rich and the poor. Plus all the other things that have been going wrong in the world.
Nicholls also has insightful commentary about how children become like their parents in some ways and how children strive to become their own people, whether it's Douglas and his son or Douglas and his father.
Although the novel continues on long after the story itself is finished -- including an odd section where the plot is retold from the vantage of Connie being the protagonist and Albie being the protagonist -- Us is one of those novels about a journey in which the journey of reading it was worthwhile.
©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission