“Why did the youth of other cities seem so attractive? Did the Dutch walk the streets of Guilford or Basingstoke and think, my God, just look at those people?”
AUTHOR: DAVID NICHOLLS
PUBLISHER: HODDER AND STOUGHTON
It’s been a long time since David Nicholls’ last novel, One Day, was released in the UK. Seemingly overnight it became an international best seller, which was followed with gushing praise, awards, fan-fare, and a Hollywood movie. The success of One Day was largely dependent on what Nicholls does so well – he writes about love in a way that we can all relate to. It was to be expected then that his latest novel, Us, was to be met with such anticipation. Now, after five years of waiting, and much to the delight of his fans, David Nicholls’s Us is finally on the shelves.
Us follows Douglas and Connie: scientist and artist, and for more than twenty years, husband and wife – until suddenly, their marriage seems over.
Hurt and confused, Douglas decides to win Connie back by taking her on a ‘grand tour’ of Europe. Meanwhile, his relationship with his teenage son, Albie, deteriorates into a series of arguments and slammed doors. Douglas, in a last ditch attempt to save his marriage and restore his precarious relationship with his son, decides that the answer to the crisis is a rail adventure through the heartland of Europe.
“It is the narrator, Douglas, who makes this novel a sheer joy to read”
Soon begins an unusual adventure that takes them through the streets of Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Venice, and Madrid. Despite meticulous planning by Douglas, the trip soon descends into chaos – the trio find themselves encountering prostitutes, violent bikers, an affectionate accordion player, and a near fatal encounter with jelly-fish.
This may sound like a fun novel, and that is because it is, but more than that it runs deeper as it reveals the turmoil that each of us face at some point in our lives. Nicholls describes Us as “a book about someone facing up to the possibility of unrequited love and realising the people he loves the most, his wife and his son, might not love him. That’s quite a powerful fear.”
It is the narrator, Douglas, who makes this novel a sheer joy to read. And, on the surface, you may be warranted to ask; why? After all, he is a fifty-something biochemist, a lover of reason, a reader of instruction manuals, a maker of lists – not what you may expect from a ‘romantic hero’. Yet, despite his idiosyncrasies being a touch frustrating, he, in an odd sort of way, is really quite loveable.
“The novel gives the readers what they want; romance, despair, laughter, and perhaps most importantly, it makes us think”
However, as lovely as Douglas may be, the novel is not without its faults. For instance, throughout the text Nicholls uses a parallel narrative; there is the main story, of course, but also a series of flashbacks that focus on Connie and Douglas’s relationship – how they met, their courtship and subsequent marriage, and then the birth of their child. This at first works, it offers depth and meaning to the characters, in a way that allows them to become living, three-dimensional people. Unfortunately, once the reader is engaged, the plot is racing along and there is a desire to see what will happen next, the flashbacks soon become tiresome; the interludes become unwelcome, and a desire to skim begins.
Leaving this grievance aside, Us has to be seen as a triumph. After all, the novel gives the readers what they want; romance, despair, laughter, and perhaps most importantly, it makes us think. Beyond the silliness, beyond the madcap moments, the novel asks the readers serious questions about parenting, commitment, and the nature of love. It is these moments where the relationship is strained, when Douglas has to question himself that result in the most memorable scenes.
“There is no handsome suitor, nor is there some naive quarry, there is fortunately one key ingredient – love”
Us may surprise many readers, Nicholls, in this novel at least, has broken all the rules in this unconventional love story. There is no handsome suitor, nor is there some naive quarry, there is fortunately one key ingredient – love. But it isn’t the sickly kind; it isn’t the wild, mad, youthful love that we are all too often given by the shovel load. This love is the kind that builds for years, that lasts throughout life, and stays with us for eternity.
And while this is not a flawless novel – we should always be suspicious of any book that claims to be – it is a thoroughly entertaining and moving one. David Nicholls writes about love, both its pleasure and sorrows, in a way that reminds us of what it truly means to be alive.