Douglas Petersen is the odd man out in his family. His wife and seventeen year old son are free-spirited, risk-taking artists while he is a scientist that prefers the safety of order and predictability. In Us, the latest novel by British author, David Nicholls, we witness Douglas’ struggle to keep his family together as their disparate lives threaten to tear them apart.
The novel begins with Douglas’ wife, Connie, waking him in the middle of the night to say that she thinks she wants to leave him but she’s not quite sure. Plans have already been made for a “Grand Tour” of Europe with their college bound son, Albie, and despite Connie’s declaration looming over them and Albie’s resistance against spending the summer with his parents instead of with his mates, they decide to follow through with the trip.
Douglas narrates the novel, alternating between the present-day trip through Europe and their backstory. We learn that he and Connie met at a party when they were both in their late twenties and soon after Connie’s tumultuous breakup with another artist. Douglas, who spends most of his time holed up in his laboratory working on experiments with fruit flies, was coaxed to the party by his sister with the goal of hooking him up with Connie. Why the sister thought they would make a good pair is not obvious but Douglas explains their attraction nicely when he says “I think I offered my wife a way out of a lifestyle she could no longer sustain. The Connie Moore I’d met had been a party girl, always dancing on tables, and I think I offered her a hand down to the floor.” We also learn that an infant daughter, born before Albie, died suddenly. Despite this tragedy, and a couple of other marital difficulties we learn about, Douglas thinks their marriage is strong and spends the summer holiday trying to keep it alive.
As he tries to save his marriage, it soon becomes obvious that his relationship with his son is the one that really needs help as they do nothing but butt heads. For a good part of the book, I was squarely on Douglas’ side as he time and again stumbles in his attempts to be a good father and husband. He tries so hard to please both Connie and Albie but always seems to do or say the wrong thing. Albie is a real jerk a lot of the time, but that’s no surprise since he is a seventeen year old boy being dragged through art galleries around Europe, but it is Connie that made me question whether or not she is supposed to be a likeable character. Because they share a lot of the same interests and have similar personalities, she and Albie have a close relationship, and when he and his straight-laced father clash, she almost always comes down on Albie’s side. I saw Douglas as the berated, misunderstood father excluded by his wife and son, but after a while, I had to wonder if we can rely on him to give us the full story. What is clear from this novel is that relationships are hard, even between people that love each other.
Nicholls tackles a pretty heavy topic in this novel, but he also, with varying success, tries to add some levity, mostly at the expense of poor Douglas, which gives the novel a predictable British comedic flavor. Nicholls’ previous novel One Day was turned into a movie starring Anne Hathaway and he is also the screenwriter for the recent movie version of Far From the Madding Crowd, so it is no surprise that Us is headed for the theaters some time down the road. I’m just wondering who will play the lead, Hugh Grant or Colin Firth. My vote would be for Colin, but either way, I recommend you read the book first to savor the great writing of David Nicholls.
Katherine Arends is Branch Manager at the Mebane Public Library.