I think our marriage has run its course, she said. I think I want to leave you

After reading One Day, I have had a special place in my heart for David Nicholls. His new novel ‘Us’ follows the end of the Petersen’s marriage. Douglas, a scientist, and his wife Connie, an artist and free spirit, go on a last ditch Renaissance around Europe to save their marriage with their teenage son Albie reluctantly in tow. Douglas is a practical, intelligent man at a complete loss as to how he lost his wife and why he never quite connected with his son. The trip is his meticulously organised means of winning them back and he is determined that by the end of their travels they will feel the love he always felt for them.

Douglas is a curious character. We are taken through his early relationship, his mad love of Connie despite their apparent incompatibility and surprise that she feels the same. His attempt to understand Connie’s love of art and his pre-prepared one liners designed to impress. Though he tries, he doesn’t understand her world and his clumsy attempts tire and fall flat. The hardest he tries, the worse it becomes. His son takes after his mother, he’s a teenage heartthrob with soulful eyes and an artistic and soulful spirit that’s completely at odds with everything Douglas knows and believes.

The thing about this story is that it tells you about their life in parts, a first meeting here, escapades in France here, in an attempt to explain why the marriage worked in the first place and why it’s failing now. Despite Nicholl’s expressive writing style and interesting and engaging characters, I found it very difficult to get into this book. Novels are about falling into another world, the transition should be seamless, allowing you to suspend disbelief and accept the more incredible and implausible aspects of the story. I really struggled to do this from the beginning. The characters didn’t quite fit together. Albie, a mere 17 year old teenage boy, seemed to have rampant freedom to partake in all the worldly vices parents have the job of protecting them from. His relationship with Cat the accordion player, though she was one of the most amusing characters, is questionable given her age and the lack of intervention from the parents. Free spirit is one thing but Connie’s parenting style is too extreme to believe sometimes. The relationship between Douglas and Connie, though the author goes to great length to build in a way we can accept, never really feels comfortable, and the combination of the three in the family never really fits.

The book improves though, while the first half feels forced, the second feels freer, and the story more engaging. There’s more explanation that helps to piece together Douglas and Connie’s life together but Albie is still an oddity. Nicholls knows how to craft amusing characters and though the situations they find themselves in become more outlandish, I was better able to suspend disbelief. Douglas becomes a more fully formed person and you want to think he can save his marriage.

I won’t ruin the ending for you but I still felt a sense of dissatisfaction with how it was wound up. The conclusion of the story felt rushed and a little artificial, I could see what Nicholls was going for, and it wasn’t like the bombshell at the end of ‘One Day’, but ultimately it failed to capture me. David Nicholls has written a story that holds some interest but never quite comes together. He tries to make the ordinary extraordinary, but it falls flat of his ambitions. I couldn’t care for characters in the same way I have in other novels and I didn’t find myself overly invested in the ending.

Rating: 3/5

Book Conversation Points:

Were you able to engage with the novel? When did you feel most engaged?

Did you like the Petersen family? Who was your favourite and why?

How did you find the juxtaposition of past and present to tell the story?

Were you happy with the conclusion? If you wanted it to turn out differently how would you have had it end?

If you’ve read any of David Nicholls previous novels, how does ‘Us’ compare?

Next month we will be reading 10:04 by Ben Lerner, come read along with us!