Book review: Us by David Nicholls

Us
By David Nicholls

Hodder & Stoughton
£20

Us is the story of Douglas and Connie, a couple who are drifting towards old age and who react to the imminent departure of their son, Albie for university in a rather more dramatic way than usual: they decide to split up.


Or rather Connie does. Douglas, the narrator, a scientist persists in living in a state of denial over the matter. At any rate, he has opportunity of the trio’s ongoing Grand Tour, a 21st century version of the big trips Georgian young men took in the 18th century, to win her back. Douglas soon finds himself in danger of losing his son too and across France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands finds himself engaged in a struggle to win his family back.


All this may sound very different to David Nicholls’ previous book, One Day, which followed the two main characters on the same date every year from the late Eighties up to the end of the last decade. It is indeed different but there are similarities. Us tends to alternate chapters between Douglas’s present day struggles in Europe and recollections of how he and Connie first met (again, in the late Eighties), became lovers, had children before their relationship gradually starts to deteriorate to the crisis point we reach at the start of the book.


The main problem here is that Douglas is such a tremendously stuffy narrator. He is fifty-four at the outset of the book but comes across as such a grumpy old fart that it’s hard not to imagine he is actually in his seventies at least. He doesn’t even seem particularly dynamic in the scenes depicting his earlier youthful years with Connie.


Perhaps this isn’t a problem. One Day was, after all, slightly spoiled for me by the main male character being such a knob. In fairness, nobody else seems to have even slightly disliked that hugely popular book. And to be fair, I’ve very much enjoyed all four of Nicholls’ excellent highly readable novels to date.


This one is different too. There is a wonderfully concise history of portrait art covering just half a page. This was long-listed for the Booker Prize. I maintain my doubts about the lead character but Nicholls, once a writer on TV’s Cold Feet, deserves credit. He is not only now an excellent writer of popular fiction. He is producing literature.

13 books that would make the BBC’s Big Read list were it held in 2013

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Ten years have passed since the BBC launched its “Big Read” with the aim of finding the nation’s best loved novel.

The results, drawn from three quarter of million votes, are repeated below. Voters could initially vote for any novel they wanted although the top 21 were then voted for again, on condition that one book per author was permitted for the top 21.

THE ORIGINAL BIG READ TOP 100 (2003)

  1. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  3. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
  4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  7. Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
  8. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  11. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  12. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  13. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
  14. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  15. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  16. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  17. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  18. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  19. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières
  20. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  21. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  22. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
  23. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling
  24. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling
  25. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  26. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  27. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  28. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  29. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  30. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  31. The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson
  32. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  33. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  34. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  35. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
  36. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  37. A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
  38. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  39. Dune by Frank Herbert
  40. Emma by Jane Austen
  41. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  42. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  43. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  44. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  45. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  46. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  47. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  48. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
  49. Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian
  50. The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher
  51. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  52. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  53. The Stand by Stephen King
  54. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  55. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
  56. The BFG by Roald Dahl
  57. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
  58. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
  59. Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
  60. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  61. Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman
  62. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
  63. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  64. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
  65. Mort by Terry Pratchett
  66. The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton
  67. The Magus by John Fowles
  68. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
  69. Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
  70. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  71. Perfume by Patrick Süskind
  72. The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell
  73. Night Watch by Terry Pratchett
  74. Matilda by Roald Dahl
  75. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
  76. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  77. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  78. Ulysses by James Joyce
  79. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  80. Double Act by Jacqueline Wilson
  81. The Twits by Roald Dahl
  82. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  83. Holes by Louis Sachar
  84. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
  85. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
  86. Vicky Angel by Jacqueline Wilson
  87. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  88. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  89. Magician by Raymond E. Feist
  90. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  91. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
  92. The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel
  93. The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
  94. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  95. Katherine by Anya Seton
  96. Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer
  97. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
  98. Girls in Love by Jacqueline Wilson
  99. The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot
  100. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

It’s hardly for me to pass judgement on the biggest survey of public reading thus held (although I am about to, anyway!). However, I do feel the list holds up pretty well in the age of the e-reader. The top 21 seems pretty solid. Some might question the presence of so many children’s books but these are often the “best-loved” books after all. I would be more inclined to question the decision to include the Narnia and His Dark Materials books as one book apiece while each of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are included as separate entities.

Would the likes of The Thorn Birds and Goodnight Mr Tom have made the list today? It is not clear.

However, had the Big Read been conducted in 2013, I’m sure the following novels would have found a place somewhere:

1, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling.

2. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling.

3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling

4. The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night Time by Mark Haddon

5. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (and possibly the sequel, Bringing Up The Bodies)

6. One Day by David Nicholls

7. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James (and sequels?)

8. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (and sequels?)

9. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (and sequels?)

10. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (and sequels?)

11. The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

12. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

13. Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

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