Us is the story of a man trying to rescue his relationship with the woman he loves and learning how to get closer to a son who’s always felt like a stranger. Narrated by Douglas Petersen, an exacting scientist who is shocked to learn that his wife of 25 years is considering leaving him – just as the family are about to go on a Grand Tour of Europe. Us is Douglas’s story of trying to piece his crumbling life back together.
Us is a first person narrative, so the point of view is wholly Douglas’s. Structurally the novel works well, due to Nicholl’s mastery of the craft. The story unfolds in the present – the Grand Tour – and the past, and these are seamlessly woven to build up the picture of the characters, marriage and the trip. That said, the choice of Douglas as narrator was a beguiling one for me. Douglas is a scientist, an uninspiring and lacklustre anti-hero. He likes to be in control, and is emotionally detached. He even seems frightened of his son, Albie. Us examines the break down of the marriage through Douglas’s eyes, and it was only when I was part-way through the book that it struck me that this left a gaping hole in the story. What was Connie’s perspective? I don’t believe that Douglas is a reliable witness on this huge emotional story, and it was a tall ask of him by Nicholls. The big question is whether Connie loves Douglas enough to stay with him – this question is posed early on in the book, “I think our marriage has run its course. I think I want to leave you..” She needed to be uncertain to make the book work, but given what Douglas reveals of Connie, I think it was an open-shut case. She’d’ve been off.
In Us the Petersen’s decide to continue with the Grand Tour, and things go badly for Douglas. He humiliates his son, who stomps off with an accordion-playing girl to go on his own tour. Connie decides this is the end of the trip for her, but Douglas gets it into his head that if he can mend his relationship with his son, he will save his marriage. So begins a farcical tale of Douglas chasing around Europe, and where the story in Us shifts, it becomes more unbelievable and more irritating. Douglas is painful with out Connie to soften him, and I came to be hugely irritated by him in this part of the book. I had gone too far to give up, but I was tempted to abandon the book, just as Albie had stomped off.
There are moments of brilliance in Nicholls’ writing, and I admire his craft. I did not find it a humorous read, although the scene with Douglas gluing Albie’s Lego together did make me chuckle. There was far too much travel guide in the narration too – great descriptions of place, of art, that did nothing to advance the story. I skimmed many of these passages.
The characters in Us did not move me. I wanted Connie to leave Douglas, and that is why I wanted to reach the end of the book. I wanted Albie not to be affected by his dysfunctional father. Unlike the last two books I’ve read, Us did end satisfactorily, although it’s not the ending that I was really expecting.
When I put the book down, I heard myself not recommending Us to a friend, which came as a surprise and a disappointment to me. This review comes after much reflection about it, but perhaps I had too high expectations after One Day. I still wouldn’t recommend it.