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November 8, 2015

Us, by David Nicholls

us“It’s like a Richard Curtis film,” will be the kind of description that sends half of you running, but (surprise, surprise) I’m in the other camp, and so I was all up for reading David Nicholls’ novel, Us. It’s the story of Douglas, a rather buttoned-up fellow whose wife Connie confesses late one night that after twenty-five years of marriage, perhaps she’s ready to leave him. Although it’s a tentative thing, her declaration, and they’ve already scheduled a summer trip across Europe with their teenage son that she’s determined to go through with. Leaving Douglas, who’s never too sure of himself in the first place, on particularly unsteady ground, and what ensues is continental hijinx and mayhem, bittersweetness and a bit of heartwarming.

The story weaves together the story of their trip with that of their relationship, starting with their first meeting at a dinner party, an unlikely connection between them. Connie is warm, passionate, artistic, while Douglas is an awkward biochemist, but each awakens something in the other, and Douglas finds himself in love for the first time in his life, moreover bowled over that Connie loves him too—he makes her laugh, he calms her storms, and their worlds are so different that each is fascinated with the other. Their relationship progresses, they move in together, buy a flat, and get married, which is straightforward enough, but life itself never is. There are bumps in the road, and there are tragedies, in particular the death of their daughter soon after her birth, an experience that tears them away from themselves, each other, and the entire world, before they’re able to reassemble to the pieces of the universe into something recognizable again, and even though they do, it’s something from which neither of them ever fully recover—Douglas in particular, who we know from his own evasions in the narrative lacks the emotional vocabulary to fully process what has happened to them. Though the experience also cements them like nothing else—no one else knew their baby, or loved her, and they resolve together to never forget her. Even the birth of their son not long after, while something like a balm, doesn’t take the pain away.

As their son grows, though, there becomes a new kind of pain. Life changes and Douglas leaves the job he loves in academia to better provide for his family, working long hours and commutating to a pharmaceutical company. And he begins to find himself displaced within their family home, that his wife and son are connected in a way that excludes him, and that his attempts to be the kind of father he wants to be—and even more, for his son to be the kid of boy he wants him to be—all fizzle, setting off a chain reaction of upset and disappointments. He loses his humour. His son has no respect for him, and doesn’t even like him, and no wonder. And then there is Connie, at four o’clock in the morning: “I think our marriage has run its course, Douglas, and I think I want to leave you.”

On their trip to Europe, Douglas becomes determined to prove to Connie that he is the man she fell in love and to their son that he is worthy of his love and respect. But things go very wrong before they’ve any chance of being right again. And it was some of these bits of the novel (which is 400 pages) at which my attention lagged. The addition of a sex-mad Australian accordion player to this cast was a good one, and the travel setting allowed Douglas to grate on his family’s nerves in a way that was particularly exacting. But it was the interactions between these characters that I loved best, and so Douglas wandering the streets of Amsterdam was always going to be less compelling, no matter who he meets on his wanderings.

Resolutions were also a bit pat as well, although I’d heard the Richard Curtis comparison, so what was I expecting. Curiously though, the novel is spattered with very literary epigrams: Penelope Fitzgerald, Lorrie Moore, Elizabeth Taylor (not that one), Henry James and Isaac Newton. Allusions as scattershot as Douglas’s attempts at harmony, or the travel itinerary that eventually transpired. Suggesting the novel comes with a certain literary heft, which is strange because its narrator isn’t at all the type. Surely this novel isn’t the type either. But then the references are also elsewhere woven into the text itself, and perhaps the project itself is to determine what kind of novel one can write about a man who doesn’t read novels.  The inner life of a man who conducts himself as though he has no inner life, the stereotypical Englishman—perhaps a generation late. The kind of man who peruses his son’s social media accounts, and wonders with terror (at least I think it’s with terror): “Good God…how might I have fared in a world where people were free to say what they felt?” How far would the novel have to stretch to accommodate a narrator like that?

While the novel should have been shorter, I can determine that I liked it very much, most particularly for the complexity of its characters. Connie is just as flawed as Douglas is, and while initially they complement each other, it’s easy to see how the years roughen their edges and have them rub up together all wrong. She thwarts him just as much as he thwarts himself, and it’s all so terribly human and wrong. The novel is notable too for its portrayal of marriage—it reminded me of a line from Lorrie Moore’s Bark, that marriage “was like being snowbound with someone’s demented uncle.” But how does one get there? The path is never so straightforward. And David Nicholls has done a remarkable job of showing us the way.

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