Having read and loved Nicholls’ earlier novels Starter for Ten and One Day, I have been looking forward to reading Us for ages.
Us is the story of a family. Douglas is a middle-aged scientist who lives in the home counties in England with his wife Connie, an artist who works in arts administration, and their 17-year-old son Albie. One night Connie wakes up in the middle of the night and tells Douglas she thinks that after twenty years, their marriage has run its course. Douglas is devastated but determined that they should go on the European tour the family had planned to celebrate Albie’s imminent departure from the nest.
The story of their trials on the continent is interwoven with their backstory. David Nicholls is a seriously funny writer. I was laughing all the way through this novel. His first two novels were funny too, but Us is even more so. He has such comedic skill in ridiculing all the silliness of modern life and relationships. His extremely short chapter on the history of art was hilarious – from Virgin Mary’s with child, through fat cherubs, dead pheasants, ballet dancers, squares of primary colour, soup cans, to video and concrete. I’m paraphrasing but I was crying with laughter reading it. His description of hipsters had a similar effect.
But there’s more to this book than laughs. He also skewers the heart-breaking and sometimes vicious moments that make up marriage and parenthood, as well as what it means to be human. He reflects on loneliness in the midst of activity, what it is like to feel left out and the sad inadequacies that most of us experience at least some of the time. Douglas is a bit of a bumbling conservative idiot who appears to have been born wearing a cardigan, but with his honesty about his short-comings, he is hard not to like. While Douglas and Connie are able to remain civil to each other on the trip around Europe’s art galleries, it soon becomes clear that Douglas has a fractured relationship with his son. The scene where things fall apart between them was so simple and recognisable and heartbreaking, it hurt to read. Another scene where Douglas relates an incident at Alby’s school where he has embarrassed his family is also excruciating, particularly as Douglas realises with hindsight how badly he behaved.
The climax and ending are not necessarily surprising but felt very right. I enjoyed this story very much and I think it is great Nicholls earned a Booker long-listing for it. I also have to admire him for defending women’s fiction, when some reviewers sniped that this book was chick-lit in all but name. The easy, flowing prose might appear lightweight and appeal to a wide readership, but there’s a lot of emotional resonance to this book, which deserves all the success it gets.