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us - david nicholsUs by David Nicholls
Harper 2014
ARC (paperback)
392 pages

After more than two decades of marriage, Douglas Petersen’s wife Connie suddenly wakes him in the night to tell him that she thinks she wants to leave him, that their marriage has ‘run its course’.

Fifty-four year old Douglas is stunned and resistant. Connie is the love of his life, the only woman he’s ever had a serious relationship with, and the mother of his two children: Jane, who died just days after she was born, and Albie, a moody youth about to transition to university. Douglas is a scientist, Connie an artist, and Albie takes after his mother.

Despite Connie’s announcement, she is still determined that the family take their planned trip around Europe to tour art galleries and take in foreign places. Douglas sees it as his chance to change Connie’s mind, but the trip is fraught with tension, and Douglas’s inability to get along with his son is the cause of the disintegration of his carefully detailed itinerary.

Now, instead of going back to England with Connie, Douglas is determined to find Albie and bring him home – thinking that this will be a heroic act in Connie’s eyes. That if he can return her son safely to her, she won’t leave him. But the search for Albie in Europe tests Douglas in other ways, and away from Connie and all that is familiar to him, he has a chance to break out of his own tightly-controlled parameters and behave in ways that surprise him.

But is it enough to save his marriage? Can he rescue his fraught relationship with his son, a boy who has always managed to provoke irritation and disappointment in him? Us is a story of one middle-aged man’s quest to preserve something that, perhaps, shouldn’t be saved. A transformative journey not only across Europe, but through the past and his memories, the pieces of which come together to make Douglas Petersen a wholly real and sympathetic – if not entirely likeable – man facing a major upheaval in his life.

In the beginning, I loved this book. I loved the conversational style Douglas has in telling his story directly to the reader, his frank reflections and realistic flaws. This is very much a book about human nature, human foibles, the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in being human, the ways in which life plays out and our best intentions don’t always work out how you planned. It’s a story about personalities, and making room for other people’s characters, adapting and compromising, to make not just a marriage but a family work.

The trouble was that, after a while, I found the story and the style almost stifling, claustrophobic. Perhaps those are overly dramatic words, perhaps what I really mean is it was a bit repetitive in terms of style and voice, that Douglas’s voice was too authentic and that I have, maybe, more in common with Connie and less patience for Douglas. I love getting inside a character so different from myself, but every story contains different elements – voice, style, plot etc. – that, together, either work for you or don’t. It becomes wholly subjective, an emotional response to a person that you can no more consciously influence when reading about that person than you can, meeting them in the flesh.

Us is strongly realistic, almost painfully so. The non-linear structure is easy to follow – Douglas guides the whole way, which is very in keeping with his character (he loves itineraries and maps) – and helps break it up, as well as enable the full picture to come together slowly and with a solidity that comes from the use of small details, little snapshots. There’s a quote from John Updike’s Rabbit is Rich at the very beginning that fits this book perfectly:

He finds a hundred memories, some vivid as photographs and meaningless, snapped by the mind for reasons of its own, and others mere facts, things he knows are true but has no snapshot for.

As a description of the style and structure of this book as well as the way Douglas walks you through his memories and his life, this is very apt. The characters are recognisable – and often unpleasant – in all their flaws and quirks, and the scenarios feel familiar whether you’ve experienced them or not. There’s skill in that, from Nicholls, that shouldn’t be dismissed.

But essentially this is the story of a marriage in the process of dissolving, and the interesting thing was how you, the reader, feel about that. Do you want them to stay together? The stories and memories that Douglas chooses to share have a noticeable influence on that, until the last third of the book when you start to finally break away of Douglas’s mindset and you have enough information to consider things for yourself. Perhaps the ending is a surprise. Perhaps it is a disappointment, yet really it is the only way it could have ended, in hindsight. But it is very sad. It made me think of how I – who have much in common with Douglas, really, being an introvert who dislikes ‘partying’ and finds socialising exhausting – could never be in a relationship with an extrovert like Connie. There have been times when, snuggling on the couch with my husband of a Friday or Saturday evening, we’ve remarked out loud how nice it is that our wishes are in harmony, not conflict. Yes that sounds a bit smug, but really it’s just comfortable. The pattern of Connie and Douglas’s relationship makes sense, the way it plays out and the hurdles they had to overcome, but at the end of the day Douglas won: it was Connie who had to change. It was Connie who gave up aspects of her life. That’s never a great recipe for a long-term relationship.

Yet life is rarely neat and simple, and if it is, it might not feel like living. What this story really shows is how complicated every individual relationship is, that you can’t apply one system of rules or expectations to every relationship, every marriage. That what works for some doesn’t necessarily work for others. And that not every marriage should survive. That maybe it’s better that it doesn’t. I like to think I’m not the judging type, but we all try to make the world less chaotic, more familiar and understandable, by using our own frame of reference – our own perspective – to make sense of the world and the people in it, so everyone judges in that sense. This is one of the things I love about fiction: the chance to hear a voice different from our own, a different perspective, other people’s choices, and not just get irritated that they didn’t do things the way we would have done them, but to consider their choices in light of their own context, their own life and character. In that sense, fiction has great potential. I may not have enjoyed Us as much as it seemed I would at the beginning, but it still made an impression and reminded me of some of the qualities of storytelling that I really value.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.

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