‘Us’ is the story of Douglas Petersen, a hardworking, down-to-earth biochemist, who plans to win back the hearts of his bored wife Connie and rebellious teenage son Albie by organising a ‘Grand Tour’ of all the major art galleries of Europe. The novel follows the Petersen family as their journey goes breathtakingly wrong, but the narrative is also interspersed with flashbacks telling the story of Douglas and Connie’s relationship, from the day they got together to their marriage all the way up to the present day. Flashbacks can often bog a novel down, but I found both storylines, past and present, equally engaging, and Nicholls’ transitions between the two were seamless. The tension was sustained well; for most of the book I had no idea whether things would turn out for the better or not. There were many shrewd observations about modern family life and I found myself recognising people I knew in the characters and their reactions to situations.
I am normally pretty cold-hearted when it comes to stories and I tend to take reviews telling me that a book will make me laugh and cry with a pinch of salt. However, the writing was very witty and I did find myself laughing out loud on several occasions. At various points throughout the book I also felt genuinely sad for Douglas, as it was clear that he loved his wife and son desperately but just didn’t know how to get through to them. This was particularly evident in his fantasies about how perfect everything would be when he managed to sort things out with Connie and Albie: to him, as the narrator, they seemed perfectly plausible but I, as the reader, could tell that he was going to be disappointed.The sad undertone of the book is summed up well in one of the first remarks he makes about Albie: ‘I have one son […] to whom I am devoted but who sometimes regards me with a pure and concentrated disdain, filling me with so much sadness and regret that I can barely speak.’ However, although much of the book is sad, I think that the final message is one of positivity and it did not leave me with a bad taste in my mouth.
All the characters were well-drawn and felt as if they could be real people. I liked and sympathised with Douglas; he was an amusing narrator and, as a nine-to-five middle-aged father, a refreshing change from most other narrators I’ve encountered. He could sometimes be self-deceiving (for example when he bought ‘peach-toned Speedos two sizes too small‘ with no further remark on the matter) but I found this endearing rather than irritating. He was also pretty much the epitome of an Englishman abroad, as demonstrated in his astonished description of his first trip to Paris: ‘Children, really quite small children, speaking fluent French! All that cheese and none of it cheddar, and nuts in the salad.’ It was like spending time in my dad’s head; it certainly made me think!
Although I liked Douglas, I could relate to Connie and Albie as well and I understood why they might find him infuriating. They, too, were well-drawn and plausible, as were the minor characters such as Douglas’ sister Karen and the pretentious street performer Kat.
One aspect of the book which didn’t quite ring true was Connie’s reasons for wanting to leave Douglas: although it was clear that their marriage was not easy, she did repeatedly tell him that she loved him, so I felt that she needed to give a proper explanation for abandoning him. Her extremely relaxed attitude towards Albie’s drug-taking and wild lifestyle also seemed unrealistic; although she was a bit of a free spirit herself, I doubted that she would not feel even a bit of concern for her son, especially after the death of her first child. The sometimes lengthy descriptions of the tourist sites the Petersens visited could also clog the narrative, but this is only a very minor issue.
Overall, I would recommend this book as a funny and entertaining yet thought-provoking read.