Us, by David Nicholls, is an easy to read yet perceptive and (in places) laugh out loud funny story about a middle aged husband and father whose family life is falling apart. Douglas is a fifty-four year old Doctor of Biochemistry who has been married for almost twenty-five years to the artsy Connie. They have a seventeen year old son named Albie who is close to his seemingly cool and hip mother but not to his strait laced father. When Connie, faced with the prospect of an empty nest, announces that she wishes to leave their marriage Douglas determines to make their last family holiday (a Grand Tour of Europe and its artwork that he has already organised in meticulous detail) so successful that she will change her mind. Naturally things do not go to plan.
The book is written from Douglas’s point of view thus allowing the reader to understand that he recognises his failings, particularly as regards his son who he is trying to mould in his own image, a sensible and practical approach to the harsh realities of the modern world. His descriptions show that he has a typical seventeen year old boy (except, perhaps, for the closeness to his mother) with his filthy bedroom, unsociable hours and refusal to wear a coat. Douglas is frustrated and saddened that their relationship so frequently descends into acrimony even though he recognises that this is often his fault. I particularly empathised with the line early on:
‘But the unrequited love of one’s only living offspring has its own particular slow acid burn.’
Albie made it clear that he would prefer Ibiza with friends to ‘posh interrailing’ with his parents. Nevertheless they set off on their odyssey with each stop along the way requiring many visits to the art galleries that Connie wished to share with her son. Douglas tags along, quoting at length from guide books in an attempt to sound knowledgeable. He struggles to appreciate much of the art, a state that I can sympathise with. Perhaps for this reason I was amused by Chapter 39: A Brief History of Art which, in less than a page, covered everything from cave paintings to the current confusing free for all. It made more sense to me than any other history of art that I have read.
Much of the book is looking back. Douglas muses on the way we form memories, how parents work so hard to give their children happy childhoods filled with fabulous experiences yet what is remembered is bad television, advertising jingles and arguments about wasted food. However children behave they are loved by their parents whilst other people’s children are often regarded as bratty. When Douglas tries to discuss this phenomena with Connie they row, she thinking that he is suggesting that her son may be regarded as bratty and taking offence. I recognised that inability to see her child as others might.
It is these details that I enjoyed in the book, these truths that are rarely considered yet which affect life so fundamentally. The tale told is sad and funny, depressingly truthful yet somehow uplifting. It is lightly written but with moments of depth and clarity alongside the humour and pathos.
I shall avoid spoilers by glossing over the denouement. Suffice to say that ends were tied and I felt satisfied that the characters developed had not been compromised to achieve a particular conclusion. Families are made up of individuals, each with their own dreams and tolerances. This book was thoughtful and entertaining; I would recommend it to anyone who has experienced the raw reality of family life.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.