How do you follow up a success like One Day, a novel that not only sold five million copies but had a huge emotional impact on so many readers?
Clearly that's been a challenge for David Nicholls, who took five years to write the follow-up and recently revealed that he had to abandon his first attempt before finally embarking on Us. But he can now breathe easily, as can all those fans of One Day. Because not only does Us live up to expectations – it delivers a whole lot more besides.
Like its predecessor, Us is a love story that revolves around a situation familiar to many readers; in this case a middle-aged couple forced to confront the rot that has set into their marriage as their son prepares to leave for university. But when artist-turned-arts-administrator Connie tells scientist Douglas she thinks their relationship has run its course, he refuses to accept her assessment – and sees the "Grand Tour" of Europe they'd originally planned to "make a man" of their son as an opportunity to win back her love.
As the family travels through Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Venice and Siena before arriving in Madrid and Barcelona for the novel's climactic scenes, the story of their holiday is narrated in the first person by Douglas. Through a series of extended flashbacks he gradually reveals how he and Connie ended up at this point in their relationship; we learn how they found each other and fell in love, how they overcame their obvious differences to forge a happy marriage, how they weathered the death of their first child, and how they eventually began the slow but steady slide into the mediocrity of middle-class middle age.
Of course, aspects of their story may seem perfectly ordinary but the novel's central voice is so terrifically written it never fails to grip the reader. And not only that but the voice of Douglas is so strong that it immediately engages our empathy. I don't mind admitting that I usually struggle to feel anything but impatience for the kind of man who can't express his emotions. "Oh come on!" I want to scream in his face, "How difficult can it be? You just move your lips and speak the words you're thinking!" But reading Us, for the first time I appreciated how self-expression might come easily to a writer like me but could seem almost impossible to a man who's never been taught how to vocalise the intensity of the love he feels. Despite my best efforts, I found myself feeling a huge bond with Douglas and rooting for him from the start.
His attempts to win back his wife's love are often very moving, but for me it's his perspective on his relationship with his teenage son that provides the novel's most heartbreaking scenes. Nicholls brilliantly captures Douglas's pain when faced with nothing but disdain, disrespect and derision from a son he loves so much. But the novel also explores the regret he feels as he acknowledges the mistakes he made as a father and how he gradually came to adopt the persona of the sour, stuffy and slightly disapproving dad. On this front, Us is so powerful that I couldn't help thinking back over every remark and look I threw at my dad as a teenager and even felt compelled to phone him up to ask if I had anything to apologise for. (He reassured me that I didn't but I was so overcome by Douglas's inability to express what he was really thinking that I couldn't take any chances so apologised anyway).
Nicholls is careful to give us more than the occasional hint that Douglas's problems expressing his emotions stem from his own father's failings but, admirably, this is never overstated – or offered as any kind of excuse. At the same time, the more we discover about Douglas's relationship with his father, the more we appreciate the quiet heroism in his efforts to do a better job himself, even if he doesn't always succeed.
Although these efforts moved me to tears on more than one occasion, don't get the impression that Us is a dark, depressing book. On the contrary, reading it is a delightful, joyous experience. Every paragraph is rich with detail drawn from the author's own view of world and every few lines we're treated to a funny thought or wry observation on topics as diverse as the grubbiness of travel and the correct way to appreciate art. It's also structurally impressive; Nicholls seamlessly and stylishly interweaves scenes from past and present so that the narrative flow is never broken. But it's the author's sensitivity and understanding of human emotions that really makes Us an exceptional novel. In one scene, Nicholls slips in a joke about the expression "emotional intelligence" being oxymoronic. If he hadn't exposed it as such I'd have praised that very quality in him.
Reading a novel as accomplished as Us can sometimes strike pessimism into the soul of a much less established novelist like me. "How can I ever write something as good as that?" I might ask myself while tossing my latest efforts into the bottom drawer.
But there's something about Nicholls' writing that has never made me feel that way; it's so welcoming and somehow so inclusive (as this novel's title might suggest) that I've only ever found it inspiring. Of course, not everyone who reads Us will be a fellow writer. But as a reader the novel warms you up from inside and makes you feel.
Of course, a reviewer is only ever respected if he demolishes someone's work and even if he loves it can often feel duty-bound to toss in at least one criticism. But I'm not going to do this as I think Us is a perfect book. And I don't care if that means I've failed as a reviewer, because I've already won as a reader.
Matt Cain is the former Culture Editor of Channel 4 News. His debut novel, 'Shot Through the Heart', is published by Pan Macmillan.
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