Us is the story of Douglas, in his fifties, whose wife wakes him up in the middle of the night to tell him she wants to end their marriage of twenty-five years. Their son, Albie, is about to head off to college, and Connie wants a new start in her life, not an ending. Douglas adores his wife and is devastated. Even worse, they’ve been planning a “Grand Tour” of Europe with Albie to celebrate his graduation. Connie wants them to go on the trip anyway, and Douglas hopes he can win his wife back.
A good part of this book is told in flashback. We see Douglas as a young man, meeting Connie for the first time. We see them fall in love, marry, and have Albie. You already know those things are going to happen. So, as the title suggests, this is really a study of two characters and of a marriage. Douglas is a scientist; he’s practical and smart, a nice guy, but not terribly exciting. Connie is artistic, passionate, spontaneous. Are they stereotypes? Maybe at times but Nicholls really develops them throughout the book, especially as their marriage falls on difficult times and they go through a number of life changes.
What I appreciated most about this book is that Nicholls avoids making these characters one-note. True, I mostly sympathized with Douglas, and at times I found myself hating Connie and even Albie. But as the book goes on, Nicholls paints a picture where Douglas is far from the perfect husband and father.
I found I related to this book on so many different levels. First, Connie and Douglas bear a fairly strong resemblance to my own parents, who divorced when I was about seventeen. Second, Douglas is the overly-practical, socially-awkward type I can really identify with (even though he doesn’t care to read fiction).
And third, I’ve been married fourteen years myself. Thankfully I didn’t find that my marriage resembles the one in this book at all. Still, I can relate to the idea of wanting to spend the rest of your life with someone, and being terrified at the idea that it might not happen.
Normally, I have trouble identifying with books about parenting, since I never wanted kids. But Douglas represents one of my own fears of parenthood, that of having a child who really doesn’t like you – and having a child you don’t like much either.
If I read this book in my twenties I’m not sure I would have appreciated it. It’s hard to think about settling down and hard to appreciate that two people so completely different could build a life together.
Similarly, I loved the travel element of this story, but if I’d read this book when I was younger I would have hated it. I wanted to travel so badly at that age, and I didn’t get to another country until I was 27. Today, I’ve been to Florence, Paris and Amsterdam — and this book took me back to those places. There are times the travel scenes get a little slapsticky, but the humor really adds one more dimension to this complicated book.
I’m sure people will have lots of opinions about where Nicholls takes this story, and I don’t want to tell you anything about how it turns out. One of the nice things about this book is the not knowing whether Douglas will manage to save his marriage and win over his kid.
Most of all, and this was true of One Day as well, I loved the way this book was written. It manages to be clever and funny and dark all at once. I loved that it’s a love story, and a character study, and in between there are tons of observations about art, parenting, travel, career, and simply growing older. Whether you like this book will depend entirely on whether you like Douglas as a person, and I really did. I highly recommend it.