Us By David Nicholls - book review: Author imparts much truth and wisdom about marriage and fatherhood

His superior brand of romantic comedy, shot through with dark shards of truth, gets under the skin of the educated middle class

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The Independent Culture

I opened David Nicholls’ new novel with a sense of excitement and trepidation.

As well as having high expectations of this follow-up to his acclaimed super-seller One Day (raised yet higher by Us’s Man Booker longlisting), I regard Nicholls as something of a commentator for my generation. He skewered our undergraduate lives in Starter for Ten, then depicted us finding a place in the world and a life partner in One Day.

His superior brand of romantic comedy, shot through with dark shards of truth, gets under the skin of the educated middle class that came of age under Margaret Thatcher’s sharp heels then drank champagne for Tony Blair in 1997. The shoutline on the cover of the proof promised he was doing it again. “Twenty-plus years of marriage,” it says. “Teenage son. Holiday. Lifetime. Join the dots.” Empty nest syndrome, midlife crisis. Gulp. Probably intimations of mortality, too. Hence my trepidation.

Us is narrated by Douglas Petersen, a nerdy biochemist of 54, who revisits the events of the previous summer when he and his wife Connie embarked on a Grand Tour of the art capitals of Europe with their reluctant 17-year-old son Albie before Albie left home to study photography. Two spanners threatened to snarl up the works. One, the antagonistic relationship between father and son; two, shortly before they went, Connie informed Douglas that, although she was still fond of him, their marriage had run its course and she, too, would shortly be off.

Over the course of 180 brief chapters (does the number indicate a volte face, perhaps?) Douglas alternates between the tale of a ghastly, often blackly funny, journey from London to Barcelona by way of Paris, Amsterdam, Venice and Madrid and an account of his marriage. It’s in the latter narrative that the real heart of the book resides. Husband and wife originally met at a supper party given by his bossy sister Karen, where in one of Nicholls’ wonderful trademark comic set pieces our strait-laced, socially inept academic rescues stylishly bohemian Connie from the attentions of a narcissistic trapeze artist, and, ultimately, from her miserable aftermath of a toxic affair with a bad lad called Angelo.

They’re chalk and cheese, but Douglas adores her and the psychological fit is easy to see. He brings stability and rationality; Connie, a failed painter, opens his mind to more artistic, emotional and impulsive sides of life. This is Douglas’s account, of course, so it’s unsurprising that one’s sympathies rest with him at this point. Connie seems rather flaky, a view underlined when she confesses to an affair with a colleague early in the marriage. They are reconciled, and their relationship deepens. Connie becomes pregnant, but baby Jane is born early and dies within hours. The photos and memories of Jane form an everlasting bond and Nicholls evokes most movingly the couple’s sense of loss and isolation. His rendition of the marriage comes across as something almost tangible, muscular and accommodating. It’s a powerful interpretation and rings true. As it turns out, it isn’t long before little Albert is pushing his way into the world, and their sorrow recedes.

The Grand Tour, meanwhile, is gruesome. Armed with schedules and pre-booked tickets, Douglas marshals his wife and son around the museums of Paris, Albie moody and recalcitrant and Connie failing to keep the peace. Albie goes off-piste and hooks up with Kat, a rambunctious Antipodean busker. When the Petersens move on to Amsterdam, she follows. There, disaster ensues. Douglas’s public humiliation of Albie in a hotel restaurant propels the boy to leave in high dudgeon on an alternative trip across Europe. Connie returns to Berkshire, but Douglas sets off in pursuit of Albie, desperate to reunite his divided family.

It’s at this point, about halfway through the novel, that the moral compass starts to swing from Douglas towards Connie and Albie. We learn how Douglas’s rigid upbringing informed his approach to child-rearing. Whilst Albie grew up close to his mother, Douglas made his son feel nervy and inadequate. A change of career to the private sector enabled him to provide better for Connie and Albie materially, but it meant he had neither time nor energy for their home life.

As he scours Italy and Spain for his son, Douglas must finally learn to loosen up. Unfortunately, this is perhaps the weakest aspect of the book. There is not sufficient cohesion between the two narratives: too much travelogue and art criticism, not enough transformative revelation. Still, the eventual meeting between father and son is dealt with adroitly and, as ever, Nicholls deals in emotional articulacy without sentimentality. Us won’t perhaps appeal to such a wide age group as One Day, but it imparts much truth and wisdom about marriage and fatherhood and as such it more than satisfies.