Douglas Petersen understands his wife’s need to ‘rediscover herself’ now that their son is leaving home. He just thought they’d be doing their rediscovering together. So when Connie announces that she will be leaving, too, he resolves to make their last family holiday into the trip of a lifetime: one that will draw the three of them closer, and win the respect of his son. One that will make Connie fall in love with him all over again. The hotels are booked, the tickets bought, the itinerary planned and printed. What could possibly go wrong?
Its difficult to write about Us without mentioning One Day. I challenged myself to write this blog post without bringing it up, but here we are. Not even the first sentence over and it happened. So instead of trying to dance around it I’ll get it over with:
I loved One Day. I loved everything about it – the story, the characters (even when they were are their shittiest) the settings, the tone, Nicholls’ effortless writing. All those gut punches. I mostly loved that it was a complete surprise. I hadn’t read any Nicholls before, I don’t really know why, he seems to write about stuff that interests me, but I always overlooked him. In fact, before I picked Us up, One Day remained the only Nicholls I’d partaken in (I’m not counting watching Starter For Ten), I was still healing from Emma and Dexter and didn’t want other stories to crowd them out.
But when a proof of Us (resplendently designed I must say) made its way into our house I made time for it as soon as I could. It was nudgingly implied Us could almost be a reacquaintance with Emma and Dexter, in different skin with different fates, but it was so much more than that and you should leave those initial star-crossed friends in Edinburgh where you found them and enjoy Us as something else.
For me, the Petersen’s were a whole new kettle of fish. A couple with over 20 years behind them, Connie and Douglas seem to have made it a long way with considerable odds stacked against them. When they meet at a dinner hosted by Douglas’ sister Connie is an arty, popular party girl on the cusp of, perhaps, giving both things up. Douglas is a rather stuffy, ordered Scientist, currently obsessed with his fruit fly study and who may as well have come from another planet. They seem to find something in the other that promised a balance and over time set up home together.
But when Connie’s paint brushes seem to have been put aside for good and when tragedy comes to shroud them both, it is Douglas’ simple, structured way of living that seems to takeover. Possibly jaded by years of Douglas “sucking the joy out of everything” and a renewed energy for creativity that she sees blossoming in her son, Connie decides it is time to part ways.
We find them planning a European holiday, a trip Connie views as a final, happy farewell to the family unit and a way to introduce her son to the world’s greatest artists. Douglas hopes the trip will help bond and build bridges, one last roll of the dice. Of course, only one can get the outcome they want, and with their son along for the ride, the possibility for collateral damage is threatened from the minute they leave London.
Their relationship unfolds through flashbacks that intersperse the trip, and it is here, in the minutiae of love, friendship, heartache and missed communication that Nicholls’ excels. He draws you in so keenly, over dining tables and across beds that you wish wholeheartedly that you were able to somehow pick up your phone and fire off urgent texts:
“He didn’t mean it that way!“
“Why would you say that to her?! Any idiot can see that was entirely WRONG!“
I challenge you not to feel helpless as these two, ultimately decent, people flail and fail in front of you.
But perhaps the most painful relationship is that between Douglas and his 17 year old son Albie. Albie is Connie’s son through and through – a Starbucks hipster taking moody shots of the backs of people’s heads, your archetypal teen, trying to find himself in the forms of others. Douglas, whose own teenage experiences were narrow and apparently, happily so, (“The most illicit act of my teenage years was to sometimes watch ITV“) struggles to understand his son and as a result bumbles spectacularly through their relationship. Some of their interactions are so skin-tighteningly awkward you can feel yourself turning inside out.
You will feel for both men in this situation, constantly knocking into one another, missing the implications of their actions and words. But it is Albie who I felt for the most. Yeah he’s a bit of a pretentious wind-bag, but then he’s allowed to be, he’s the child. He has time to be a brat, to still be embarrassed and let down by his parents. His father’s constant, if well-meant, putdowns are causing more damage than either of them seem to realise and as a reader you watch and wait, wincing against the give that is unrelentingly impending.
I loved this book, perhaps a notch less than One Day, but I’d probably still be in a coma if it had possibly been better. This novel takes you through so many emotions and you become almost instantly invested in the future of these three people. It is superbly touching and often very funny and as an art lover I couldn’t get enough of the descriptions of some of the grand masters that had me desperate to partake on a similar (but less emotionally harrowing) trip.
Just get it, its great.
- ISBN: 9780340896990
- Published by Hodder & Stoughton, out now
- Borrowed proof copy