David Nicholls is one of my very favorite authors and I realized I haven’t highlighted his books on my blog yet! US is the book that came 5 LONG years after his blockbuster bestseller ONE DAY and was long listed for The Manbooker Prize in 2014.
The story begins in early summer with Douglas Petersen, a 54-year-old biochemist, being awoken in the middle of the night by his wife of 24 years, Connie, a 52-year-old former artist turned art gallery employee. Douglas assumes Connie is worried about burglars again and sets off to check and reinforce the house. But, alas, it’s not burglars she’s concerned about — it’s their marriage. Connie believes their marriage has “run its course” and has plans to leave Douglas soon after their son, Albie, leaves for University in October. And just like that, the story is off and running.
We quickly learn through Douglas’ first-person narrative that he is madly in love with his wife (although it seems he has forgotten to tell her this over the years), and in no uncertain terms did he see this coming. Being the type-A perfectionist scientist that he is, he believes there is still a way to win back her love… continue on with their summer Grand Tour of Europe, the family trip they have already planned and booked with their son. The family, who lives in London, will embark on a European adventure that will take them to Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Venice, Siena and Madrid before concluding (with some interesting consequences for Douglas) in Barcelona. Douglas is banking on the Grand Tour, not only to entice his wife to fall in love with him all over again, but to finally form a bond with his surly teenage son before he heads off to college. This is no small feat, but he’s up to the challenge. After all, what could go wrong?
Nicholls brilliantly keeps the narrative flowing with 180 short chapters that have catchy titles, such as “The Glitter Wars” and “On Practical Ethics in the Breakfast Buffet System” (this one is hysterical). Believe me, you’ll want to read on just to find out the meanings of each of the titles. The chapters alternate between the present-day Grand Tour and flashbacks of Douglas and Connie’s early days of meeting, falling in love, getting married and having children. Can you say opposites attract? Douglas is a by-the-book type of guy who doesn’t like to venture out of his comfort zone. Connie, on the other hand, has always been a free spirit who feels she has lost herself over the years. And, as a result, she seems to have a case of “I love you; I’m just not IN love with you anymore.”
After the emotional trauma I experienced upon reading the ending of ONE DAY, I was almost hesitant to find out what was in store for the characters of US. Well, that was pointless hesitation because this is its own story, and I had a great time getting to know Douglas, Connie and Albie. I even liked Kat the accordionist. But it’s Douglas you will root for. Through his triumphs and missteps with his wife and son throughout the Grand Tour, you will laugh and sometimes cringe, but you will always be entertained. Nicholls cleverly puts him through some precarious situations, especially after Amsterdam, that beg the question: Is Douglas going to bend or break as a result?
In the end, I found that the format of the book lent itself to an entire day and night of non-stop reading. Once you get to know these characters, you’ll have to learn how it all turns out for them. Will it ultimately be a story of the inevitable failure of an opposites-attract marriage to go the distance? Or will it be a tale of that which doesn’t kill us (i.e. marriage, children, family vacations) makes us stronger and keeps us together? You’ll have to read US to find out.