Julie Christine's Reviews > Us

Us by David Nicholls
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There is something marvelously cathartic about Us. David Nicholls, graced by both Thalia and Melpomene, succeeds in making a tender salad out of raw satire. Humor, whether it’s on the page or the screen, is so hard to do well. When it works, really truly works, we’re wiping away tears of hilarity mingled with tears of sadness. Because what makes us laugh most deeply, what brings on that cathartic release, is comedy and tragedy sharing the stage.

Douglas Petersen is in his early fifties and his wife, Connie, thinks she may want a divorce. She’s not entirely certain, but at any rate, they have a long-planned trip to Europe with their teenaged son to get through, so let’s take the summer and see how things go, shall we? Their son Albie, barely on speaking terms with his father for reasons anyone who has parented a teenager or who has ever been a teenager will understand (namely, that the loathed parent exists), balks at spending several weeks schlepping around the Continent with his parents. He agrees to go only out of adoration for his mother. They are, as Douglas explains, a “small family, somewhat meagre, and I think we each of us feel sometimes that it is a little too small, and each wish there was someone else there to absorb some of the blows.”

Douglas determines that this Grand Tour of Europe is his chance to make his wife fall in love with him all over again and to close the rift with his son.

It is the simplest of premises: how one man tries to save his small but splintered family. It doesn’t even sound all that interesting, really. Oh, but I couldn’t put this down. I didn’t want to put it down. And I laughed and cried all the way through.

I confess I’d never heard of David Nicholls, despite his wildly popular novel One Day (2009) and being a huge fan of the movie Starter for 10, which I learned is a Nicholls’ novel and a screenplay he wrote. I plan to catch up if his other novels are as deeply satisfying as Us.

The story is structured as a series of present moments punctuated by the past, recounted by Douglas, a methodical, staid, and unprepossessing scientist who once devoted his research to the genetic structure of the fruit fly. How he managed to enthrall and hang onto Connie, a blithe spirit, a moody, beautiful artiste, is revealed in self-conscious wonder and tenderness by her still-smitten husband.

It would be easy to feel exasperation and pity for a man whose son regards him with such sullen disdain and whose wife trifles with their twenty-year marriage, but Douglas is never mawkish. Bewildered, yes, but his fumbling determination is endearing and empathetic. And, for heaven’s sake, the unraveling of the trip is just so very funny. Nicholls injects a series of slapstick events into the Petersen’s traipsing through Europe, but the comedy routine is always tinged with Douglas’ own sadness and anticipation: will he save his marriage or not?

The adventure takes on a breathless singularity when Albie, in a fit of pique over an unintended insult by his father, abandons his parents in Amsterdam and disappears with a peripatetic busker from New Zealand. Connie decides the trip is over for her, too, and returns to England. At the eleventh hour, Douglas realizes this is his chance to be a hero to his wife: he decides to stay on in Europe, find his son and make things right. What ensues is a comedy of errors that lands him in jail, in the middle of a school of stinging jellyfish, and in the arms of a sympathetic Scandinavian divorcee. How it all comes together, or falls apart at the end, you really must discover for yourself.

At its heart—and it’s such a very big heart, indeed—Us is the portrait of a marriage, one that will be very familiar to those of us who’ve spent at least half our lives as part of an Us, and perhaps a cautionary tale for those who have not. It is all the taking for granted, the piling up of misdemeanors large and small, the loss of joy in the drudgery of day to day rolled up into a one-sided love story and the coming-of-age of a husband and father. Poignant and hilarious, Us is also hopeful, awkward, darling, and full of joy.







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Reading Progress

July 23, 2014 – Shelved
July 23, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
November 8, 2014 – Started Reading
November 9, 2014 –
page 70
17.5% ""I had been considering what it would feel like to kiss her, weighing this against what it would feel like to miss the last tube." "In the kitchen, I battled with my desire to wipe down all the surfaces." I think I'm going to love the guy."
November 10, 2014 –
page 177
44.25% "Caution if you read this in a public place: you will LAUGH OUT LOUD. I am loving this."
November 11, 2014 –
page 267
66.75% "Oh the sadness. The sweetness. The heartbreak that is Venice. Now, on to Tuscany."
November 11, 2014 – Finished Reading
November 12, 2014 – Shelved as: best-of-2014
November 12, 2014 – Shelved as: british-isles-theme-setting
November 12, 2014 – Shelved as: contemporary-fiction
November 12, 2014 – Shelved as: read-2014
November 12, 2014 – Shelved as: european-setting-multiple-countries

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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Julie Christine What a delightful surprise. Review to come!


message 2: by Joyce (new) - added it

Joyce Oh I do like your review. I wasn't quite sure that this would be I book I'd like, but you tipped the scales. I also agree with you that humor is a very difficult thing to do. That's probably why it's such a rare quality to find in a book. Thanks Julie.


message 3: by Dianne (new) - added it

Dianne Great review, Julie!


Julie Christine Joyce wrote: "Oh I do like your review. I wasn't quite sure that this would be I book I'd like, but you tipped the scales. I also agree with you that humor is a very difficult thing to do. That's probably why..."

It's Douglas, Joyce- he is so perfectly drawn and delivered. I really had no idea what this book was about and I love being caught be surprise!


Julie Christine Dianne wrote: "Great review, Julie!"
Thank you, Diane! Nearly as much fun to write as was reading the book :)


message 6: by Mona (new) - added it

Mona Great review, as usual, Julie. I'm moving this up in my huge to-read queue.


message 7: by Cecily (new)

Cecily It sounds good, but "Albie, in a fit of pique over an unintended insult by his father" is just too close to home, I'm afraid. :(


Julie Christine Mona wrote: "Great review, as usual, Julie. I'm moving this up in my huge to-read queue." The teetering stack! I know it well. It's a quick read, Mona- I hope you enjoy!


message 9: by Jenbebookish (new)

Jenbebookish "The piling up of misdemeanors big and small." Love that-that's exactly right.


Julie Christine Jenbebookish wrote: ""The piling up of misdemeanors big and small." Love that-that's exactly right." Thank you, Jen!


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