The story of a relationship, unfolding through a clever storytelling structure, with lashings of 1980s and 1990s nostalgia, set against a middle class London backdrop. If that sounds rather like a certain ‘will they-won’t they’ novel from a few years ago, it’s with good reason. Us – the tale of a couple who have been married for two decades and are starting to feel the strain – is the latest offering from One Day author David Nicholls.
The phrase ‘eagerly anticipated’ doesn’t quite do this justice; Us is one of those books that has been talked about since Nicholls first revealed he was writing it, and two months before publication it was already longlisted for the Booker Prize. And in any case, after the enormous success of One Day, there were always going to be expectations around Nicholls’ latest foray into fiction.
So does it live up to the hype? It’s gripping, certainly, if not quite unputdownable, with a trademark sucker punch towards the end. The story follows Douglas and Connie, a chalk and cheese couple 20-odd years into their marriage and on a long-planned but rather joyless trip around Europe with their teenage son Albie. As we move from city to city, and the holiday descends into the kind of farcical disaster that only ever transpires in fiction, Douglas looks back on how he met his wife, and how their relationship progressed from day one.
It’s in these flashback scenes – the hideously uncomfortable dinner party at which he first encounters Connie, the ups and downs of becoming parents, and the mundane decisions about where to work and live that they make together – that Nicholls’ story shines. Just as he managed so effectively with Dex and Em’s saga, his focus on their everyday lives means Douglas and Connie come across as a convincing couple, in spite of their many differences. Connie, a flighty artist when we first meet her, becomes a convincingly laid back 21st century mother, while the gawky, nervous Douglas comes out of his shell. And as with One Day, they are supported by a colourful array of friends and family, not least Douglas’ dour father, whose refusal to accept the modern world is rather heart-breaking.
Albie, though, I found less convincing. Until the final pages, when his character is given a chance to express and explain himself, he comes across as a textbook disaffected teen; irresponsible, unappreciative, and immature. True of many 17 year olds, perhaps, but also rather one dimensional, especially from an author who is usually so good at bringing his characters to life. In some ways, though this was the story of Connie and Douglas, I would have loved to have been treated to Albie’s memories.
Likewise, Nicholls – a former actor, and clearly an art enthusiast or at least a consummate Wikipedia user, expends a good deal of energy discussing famous paintings or the joys of Europe’s myriad galleries. Yet the early Douglas has no real appreciation of art and, while it’s believable that he’d train himself to care to impress his new girlfriend, his contemporary enthusiasm is less convincing in a narrative told from his perspective.
But these are small gripes, because mostly this is a lovely book, full of humour and imbued with Nicholls’ obvious affection for his characters. The writing is skilful, the storytelling creative and well-paced, and the plot itself completely absorbing. You can’t help but laugh at some of the scenarios Douglas finds himself in as he attempts to get his relationships with Connie and Albie back on track, and a good number of the descriptions – from the demise of the internet café in the age of the smartphone to the way a place never looks quite the same when you visit it after years have passed – ring perfectly true.
Is it great fiction, or even worthy of its Booker nod, which critics have suggested is more about retrospectively acknowledging One Day? Probably not, if only because this is Nicholls wading in the same territory as he did then, and it’s not as unexpected or original the second time round. That said, if you liked One Day, you’ll want to read this – preferably before they cast an American actress who is entirely wrong for the part to play Connie in the film.
Published on September 30th by Hodder & Staughton, David Nicholls’ Us is available to buy online here.