By David Nicholls
Hodder & Stoughton
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.