David Nicholls’ latest novel Us has had me gripped from beginning to end: as an avid reader of numerous genres I felt as though this book had been personally written just for me!
Us is about love, family, passion, art, travel, self-discovery, culture, development and learning. Douglas and Connie Peterson have been married for twenty five years; they have one son, Albie (their daughter tragically died as a baby) who is about to leave home for university. A final family holiday has been booked for the summer before Albie departs. Douglas, a scientist with an analytical brain is totally baffled when Connie wakes him up one night to announce that she too will be leaving after their Grand Tour of the major art galleries of Europe.
Connie is a free-spirited artist who feels a deep frustration with Douglas even though they still love each other deeply and are bound together by their shared life experiences. Seventeen year old Albie takes very much after his mother; they understand and relate to one another, unlike his relationship with Douglas who constantly tries to relate and engage with his son but seems destined to fail, deeply frustrating and irritating for them both.
Instead of cancelling their meticulously planned holiday, another irritation for his spontaneous artistic family, Douglas vows to himself to make it the holiday of a lifetime; winning the respect of his son and by showing Connie that she couldn’t possibly want to carry on without him:
‘I was looking forward to us growing old together. Me and you, growing old and dying together.’ ‘Douglas, who in their right mind would look forward to that?’
My sympathies were with Douglas: as the narrator, his perspective of their sometimes hilarious misadventures seemed so heartfelt and genuine yet I empathised with Connie. I felt her pain and frustrations for the way Douglas couldn’t help behaving. Chapter 39 had me gasping out loud: Douglas gives a concise history of art from a scientific perspective, he summarises Gombrich - The Story of Art (500 pages) in one paragraph.
Reading Us sometimes made me feel guiltily voyeuristic. I felt I had stumbled across the intimate thoughts or diaries of a fiercely private man (partly due to his loveless, austere upbringing). He kept on relentlessly trying to fit in but felt a terrible failure in his own inability to do so. The superb descriptions of galleries and some of the works of art transported me to much-loved places in my own life’s history. David Nicholls has written one of the most moving books I have ever read: I laughed at, then cried for Douglas but ultimately was left with a warm sense of hope for his future.
Us is available from Waterstones, hardback priced £13.