Amazon UK has this thing that is incredible for my bookshelves (which seem so empty since I only brought a handful of books with me) but detrimental to my bank account balance: 3 paperbacks for £10. Needless to say, I have participated many times, and will therefore have many, many new reviews for you in the future.
I saw David Nicholls speak at a Glamour Magazine event with Cecilia Ahern (author of PS I Love You and Love Rosie, and one of the authors my team publishes) a couple of months ago. I had seen the film One Day for which he wrote the screenplay as an adaptation of his novel of the same name, but I hadn’t read his newest novel Us. It was available in the first of the Amazon 3 for £10 deals I did, so I nabbed it while I could. Oh boy, am I glad that I did.
The (Spoiler-Free) Summary
Douglas and Connie Petersen are the unlikeliest of lovers, but we find them after more than 20 years of marriage with a seventeen-year-old son named Albie, when one morning Connie announces that she is thinking of leaving Douglas. He is analytical and practical – a scientist, in fact – and she is artistic and borderline anarchic. Their son takes after his mother almost exclusively, which makes for a family dynamic that exhausts everyone involved.
The family is scheduled to go on a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe that summer, a trip they embark on despite the marital uncertainty. Douglas’s stubbornness and vast difference from his son, however, cause Albie to run away while they are in Amsterdam, taking off with a vagrant, accordion-playing girl almost a decade his senior. Douglas, in an attempt to repair his family and win back his wife, takes off to find his son alone and bring him home.
No spoilers in this one! (Except for the discussion questions.) Feel free to keep reading.
The Good Stuff
This is one of my new favourite books. David Nicholls has created characters that are so rich and complicated that I would have assumed, had he not dismissed the idea at the event I attended, that it had to be autobiographical. The profiles given above would be easy caricatures, but Nicholls brings out such nuance that the reader feels completely immersed.
Then there is the story itself. Fiction, as my professor says, is all about characters in extremis, and this certainly is an extreme scenario. But the believability of the characters demonstrated through actions makes it all seem not only believable but inevitable.
The story feels weighty in the sense that it feels important, but it’s quite easy to read. The language and jargon used make perfect sense for Douglas’s character – again, a scientist – so it’s possible it would be lost on some readers, but the chapters are quite short (usually) and well divided, which helps make some of the more convoluted passages easier.
Nicholls is a master at telling you what you need to know at the exact best moment for you to know it. The pieces of their history are expertly sprinkled throughout the narrative so that sometimes it immediately illuminates the present, sometimes it makes sense of the story thus far, and sometimes it lies in the back of your mind waiting for the perfect ‘aha!’ moment to fall into place.
There are few books that I have wanted to quote as much as this one. Honestly, it’s a good thing I didn’t take any highlighters with me to France, because I would have obliterated my copy. The short chapter about the history of art will be making an appearance on my Facebook or Tumblr at some point in the near future.
Lastly, this book made me fall in love with places I’ve never been. Venice, for example, is typically dismissed as being gross and overrated, and the book does acknowledge it. But it also paints such a fascinating picture of the city, the people, and the culture that I was, hand to God, looking up flights after reading that section.
The Bad Stuff
I’ve got nothing bad to report here. Nicholls is clearly a veteran writer at this point. Douglas’s language is a little above the typical commercial reading level, but this book is undoubtedly more literary than one might expect anyway.
This book would be an excellent travel companion to get you in the mood, or it could also be a good one to read during a busy time (again, since the chapters are so short and well divided). But seriously, I loved this book so much that I gave it to my mom to read, and she’s such a busy person (and I’m so stingy with my books) that she knows I only give her books I think are important. This book is important.
5 out of 5 stars
Discussion Questions: (Spoilers!)
- Do you think Douglas and Connie made a mistake by getting together in the first place?
- How does this book tackle the idea of ‘soul mates’? What are your thoughts on the subject?
- What evidence do you see throughout the story of Albie’s struggle with his sexuality?
- What similarities and differences do you see between your relationship with your parents and Albie’s?
- Do you think Connie and Douglas could have been happy long-term if they chose to stay together?