David Nicholls, best-selling author of “One Day,” returns with “Us,” the heartbreaking and hilarious story of one man’s odyssey to save a quietly crumbling marriage.
Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, “Us” is a crisp snapshot of the defining institutions of marriage and family. Biochemist Douglas Petersen is stunned when his beloved wife Connie wakes him in the middle of the night:
“I didn’t say anything about burglars. I said I think our marriage has run its curse. Douglas, I think I want to leave you.”
I sat for a moment on the edge of our bed.
“Well at least it’s not burglars,” I said, though neither of us smiled and we did not get back to sleep that night.”
The couple and their son Albie are about to embark on a long-planned “Grand Tour” of Europe before Albie vacates the nest and heads off to college. Connie has planned the trip to fuel Albie’s artistic skills and wants to forge ahead, postponing a final decision about the future of their marriage until they return home. Douglas reluctantly agrees, deciding that the trip will be a perfect opportunity for him to win Connie back – and really bond with Albie for perhaps the first time.
Douglas revisits his surprising courtship of free-spirited, artistic Connie and the years of their marriage as he plows through Europe in hopes of changing Connie’s mind. Ever the scientist, Douglas is a bracingly honest, drolly witty and wrenchingly optimistic narrator who is determined to succeed in his quest against all odds.
The trip isn’t only about Connie. While Douglas realizes he does not understand his son at all, he has high hopes of winning his love and respect as they careen across Europe. Albie is a typical teenager, with a typical disaster of a room, as Douglas so amusingly, yet accurately, describes it:
Take, for example, the state of his bedroom, a room so filthy that it is effectively a no-go zone, an immense Petri dish of furry toast crusts and lager tins and unthinkable socks that will one day have to be sealed off in concrete like Chernobyl, and this is not just laziness on his part – no, real effort has gone into a situation designed to cause the maximum upset.To me! Not to his mother, but to me, to me, so that it is no longer simply a bedroom, it is a massive act of spite. . . .
I have had some experience of unrequited love in the past and that was no picnic, I can tell you. But the unrequited love of one’s only living offspring has its own particular slow acid burn.
Needless to say, the trip is a debacle. The three manage to make it through Paris, where Albie attracts Kat, a free-spirited accordionist who follows them to Amsterdam.
Douglas believes that “in a fight you side with the people you love. That’s just how it is,” yet he violates this rule by not sticking up for Albie in an unpleasant encounter with fellow guests in their Amsterdam hotel. Albie, in turn bolts and Connie goes home, leaving Douglas determined to carry on through Germany, Italy and Spain in seemingly futile quest to find Albie and reclaim the love and respect of both his son and his wife. A modern-day Odysseus, he encounters obstacles and temptations along the way, including the overtures of a Danish siren named Freja in Venice.
Or, more fantastically, I might abandon my quest completely and stay with her for as long as that lasted. Hurl my phone from the train window into the lagoon, leave Albie to his fate, let my wife do what she wanted. Hadn’t Connie always been the instinctive, passionate one? And hadn’t I earnt the right, after all these years of diligence and reliability, to one last fit of selfish spontaneity?
But the trouble with living in the moment is that the moment passes. Impulse and spontaneity take no account of the longer term, of responsibilities and obligations, debts to be paid, promises to fulfill. I had lost sight of the people I cared for, and it was vital now that I turn my attention once again to the task in hand, rescuing my son and winning back my wife.
Join Douglas on his journey. Nicholls has succeeded in the near-impossible task of writing a novel that is at once very, very funny and nearly unbearably sad. “Us” is a terrific novel.
“Us” is available at amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.