David Nicholls (One Day, Such Sweet Sorrow) is a master at peering into all the hidden corners of relationships. In Us, he tells the story of Douglas and Connie and their seventeen-year-old son, Albie. One night, Connie wakes Douglas up and drops a bombshell: “I think I want to leave you.”
Douglas and Connie have been married for two decades, a happy marriage, Douglas (our narrator) tells us, but certainly not without its problems. Connie’s news comes just as the family is about to set off on a “Grand Tour” of Europe in advance of Albie heading off to university. They decide to go anyway, and Douglas takes this as a hopeful sign; perhaps he will be able to win back his wife’s affection and repair his slightly wobbly relationship with Albie.
The fact was I loved my wife to a degree I found impossible to express, and so rarely did. While I didn’t dwell on the notion, I had presumed that we would end our lives together.
Douglas, a scientist, and Connie, an artist, seem like an unlikely pair, really. Douglas’s narrative mines their origin story (they met at a dinner party thrown by his younger sister) for all the details which will help the reader understand their relationship and Douglas, wisely, doesn’t gloss over the fact that he is often pedantic and, perhaps, less empathetic than others. Maybe it is the scientist in him, but Douglas doesn’t always see the value in throwing caution to the wind. For him, everything is a teachable moment, and it’s caused some friction with his family over the years. I could certainly see how living with him, especially given that Connie is much more free-spirited, could wear one down.
So the family go off on their tour of the great museums of Europe and it’s a bit of a bust from the get go. Douglas has the whole thing planned down to the minute, but of course it’s impossible to plan for every contingency. Still, he tries.
1. Energy! Never be ‘too tired’ or ‘not in the mood.’
2. Avoid conflict with Albie. Accept light-hearted joshing and do not retaliate with malice or bitter recriminations. Good humour at all times.
3. It is not necessary to be seen to be right about everything, even when that is the case.
Poor Douglas. He really can’t help himself. But he’s not a jack ass. He’s actually quite a lovely guy and he really does try, but it doesn’t take long before the trip goes sideways. His willingness to do whatever it takes to fix things, including his marriage, (often leading to quite comical incidents) is one of the great joys of Us.
The other joy is watching this family – all of whom love each other deeply but imperfectly – try to figure things out. The potential dissolution of a family – all that history – isn’t easy, and watching Douglas bare his scientific soul to the idea of being without Connie and having damaged his relationship with Albie beyond repair is really quite magnificent. I read one review that suggested that Douglas was too reticent about sharing personal details, often times the scene fades to black before too much is revealed, but I think this is exactly the reason Connie felt she had to leave him.
Us is funny (although there were instances when I felt it was trying just a tad too hard to get a laugh), and well-written. I loved visiting these European cities. The characters felt like real people. The ending was – well, you decide.