Us tells the story of a marriage in the process of unravelling itself. We first meet Douglas and Connie as a middle-aged couple in the summer before their only son, Albie, leaves home for university. As a celebration and send-off, they plan a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe together. Unbeknownst to Douglas, Connie also wants to mark this watershed moment with a divorce. In the first scene of the novel she wakes her husband in the night to tell him that she thinks she wants to leave him but hasn’t quite made up her mind. Half asleep, he misunderstands and goes downstairs to check for burglars before returning to bed to be disillusioned of his mistake.
Despite this bombshell they decide to take their planned trip together – their last as a family, one way or another – and Douglas resolves to use the chance to change his wife’s mind. As they embark on this journey, the novel becomes a sort of bumbling picaresque in which a disintegrating family shamble around Europe trying, with limited success, to pretend everything is alright.
Both in theme and in structure, Us reminded me of Sharon Olds’s Stag’s Leap (2012), an autobiographical poetry collection documenting the breakdown of the poet’s marriage. The first poem, ‘While he Told Me’ describes a similar merging of the mundane and the momentous ‘While he told me, I looked from small thing/to small thing, in our room, the face/ of the bedside clock, the sepia postcard/ of a woman bending down to a lily’. Even the strangely ambiguous scenario has an echo: ‘My husband/had said he was probably going to leave me – not/ for sure, but likely, maybe – and no, it did not/ have to do with her’ (‘Material Ode’). Like Nicholls’s novel, Olds’s collection isn’t simply chronological but uses disjointed episodes from the past and present to build a story spanning many years.
This novel is an understated and gentle unfolding of how two people can come together and how they can grow apart. It uses numbered segments – some long enough to feel like chapters, some only a few lines long – and Douglas’s likable and intelligent first person narration, to tell the story of their relationship, both from the beginning and from the end. One of a small collection of epigraphs at the beginning of the book is taken from John Updike’s Rabbit is Rich:
‘He finds a hundred memories, some vivid as photographs and meaningless, snapped by the mind for reasons of its own, and others mere facts, things he knows are true but has no snapshot for’.
This ‘snapshot’ approach shapes the way this novel weaves the past into the present.
The story is told in two directions at once. It moves forward as they travel through Europe and backwards as Douglas remembers his life with Connie and tries to make sense of their relationship. Remembered episodes give us glimpses of a life out of chronological sequence but with a clear narrative pull created by Douglas’s poignant and thoughtful storytelling. We see them with a sort of double exposure, as they were and as they have become. We are shown each gradually relinquish their dreams – a career in academic research or as an artist – and accumulate resentments and regrets as their lives become more entangled, and more compromised.
Their relationship is beautifully described and each character, Douglas especially, has a depth and warmth that keeps them compelling company even when they’re being awful to each other or on the few occasions when the plot lurches into slightly implausible territory. As with most of David Nicholls’s books, there is a persistent hint of a Richard Curtis rom-com about it and it’s easy to imagine this novel being made into a pretty saccharine film. But on the page it works. It is quietly and likeably funny and a lot of that has to do with the characterisation of Douglas and the way he tells his own story.
His first person narration is perfectly suited to the tenor of this novel. Douglas tries to understand his family – his resentful son and distant wife – but it always feels like there’s a muffling barrier. He isn’t an unreliable narrator exactly, but he always seems conscious that someone else would tell his story differently. This point isn’t laboured but comes through subtly as twenty years of misunderstandings are revealed and mulled over.
Us hovers around the question of taste and has some perceptive things to say about the way we approach art: tentatively, snobbishly, as a status symbol, as a comfort. Early in their relationship Douglas and Connie compare record collections and he can’t understand why she is allowed to ironically like things he would be mocked for sincerely enjoying. He wonders about the distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow, good taste and bad, what we should like and how we can talk about it.
Both Connie and Albie consider themselves more artistically aware than Douglas. He is a scientist who feels out of his depth, and frequently bored, traipsing around galleries with his pretentious son and art school educated wife. When he offers an opinion it is usually squashed or laughed at as too literal minded or lifted from the guidebook. But some of his insights are sensitive and thoughtful and his frequently mocked guidebook mentality adds a richness to this novel, allowing the art they’ve ostensibly gone to see, to weave itself into the texture of the book. The moment when he finds himself, side by side with Albie, confronted with Courbet’s Le Origine Du Monde, for instance, prompts a sincere (if slightly embarrassed) attempt to connect with the painting and with his son.
At one telling moment, this discussion about taste veers into a few thoughts on worthiness and accessibility in literary fiction. Douglas declares himself not a big reader of fiction – he prefers history books dealing with WW2, an event that left his own father fatherless but which his son considers irrelevant. If he reads fiction, he says, it is only because Connie has provided him with it. In which case, it won’t be too challenging or complicated but will probably have won some award or other – the literary equivalent, he says, of music with a good tune and a good beat. Nicholls must have been aware that this might be considered a good description of his own work. As someone who hated One Day, and expected to find this novel equally trite and boring, these thoughtful little interludes made me feel a little guilty about my preconceptions.
Any Cop?: Beautifully crafted, funny and sad.