Algernon (Darth Anyan)'s Reviews > Us

Us by David Nicholls
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Thou only has taught me that I have a heart – thou only hast thrown a light deep downward and upward into my soul. Thou only hast revealed me to myself; for without thy aid my best knowledge of myself would have been merely to know my own shadow – to watch it flickering on the wall, and mistake its fantasies for my own real actions ...
Now, dearest, dost thou understand what thou hast done for me? And is it not a somewhat fearful thought, that a few slight circumstances might have prevented us from meeting?
Nathaniel Hawthorne, a letter to Sophia Peabody
4 October 1840

Such a lovely and promising debut for a romantic novel, and a fitting quote to prepare the reader for the history of a memorable couple. Too bad I spent the rest of the journey (as in Grand Tour of European capitals and museums) being annoyed at the main character.

Tolstoy taught us that “Happiness is an allegory. Unhappiness a story.” The story of Douglas Petersen starts on the day his almost 30 years of marital bliss are revealed to be a sham. Just as his son Albie is ready to leave home and start college, his wife Connie informs him that she may want a divorce. In his own mind everything was fine and dandy. Douglas had his whole life mapped out, planned, settled. He just forgot to consult his wife on the issue:

”’I was looking forward to us growing old together. Me and you, growing old and dying together.'
'Douglas, who in their right mind would look forward to that?’”

In a last ditch attempt to save his marriage, Douglas decides to go on with the previous family plans of going on a last vacation with his son and wife, a Grand Tour of European best museums and most picturesque cities. The novel will follow the Petersen’s mishaps, reminiscent of the Chevy Chase Lampoon comedies, alternating with flashbacks of their years together, trying to pinpoint where the relationship went off the rails. As an additional headache, Douglas is struggling hard to reach out to his teenage son, whose rebellious phase started in early childhood and shows no signs of easing off:

... he suffers from a malaise that requires at least twelve hours of sleep, and yet is singularly incapable of commencing these twelve hours before two a.m.

I already knew Nicholls can write very convincing characters, ordinary people going about their everyday life, finding the beauty and the poetry of a romantic relationship in the middle of existential struggles and failures of communication. One Day was one of my top reads two years ago, but in that case I also had a problem relating to the male lead. Like Douglas here, he was too self-centered and too clueless about what goes on in his partner’s mind. I sometimes wonder if this is a recurring theme in the yin-yang dynamic of Nicholls, which taken to extremes boils down into a duel between materialism and idealism. The marriage of Douglas and Connie is an improbable one, like chalk and cheese, two opposing personalities that have little common ground to build a lasting edifice on. Douglas is a scientist, a researcher in biochemistry, pragmatic, an introvert, highly organized, verging on obsessive behaviour when it comes to cleaning and arranging his environment. By his own statement: ... it was true, I suppose, that I’d never got the hang of being young. . He doesn’t understand art and he has no patience for fiction, preferring to read history and biographies and scientific publications. Connie gently ridicules him at one point: I’ve always wondered who those freaks are who don’t read novels. And it’s you! Freak. , a warning shot that he ignores at the time. Most annoyingly for me, he seems completely devoid of a sense of humour, despite numerous and painful attempts at witticism.

Connie is everything that Douglas is not: outgoing, irreverent, promiscuous (!?), daring, a party girl that he only meets by a carefully arranged blind date in his sister’s apartment. She is a painter, and she is on a rebound from a tumultuous affair with one of her colleagues. Rather prosaic, a true stroke of good luck for Douglas, who would have been probably ignored at any other time.

I’m aware that couples tend to embellish ‘how we met’ folklore with all kinds of detail and significance. We shape and sentimentalise these first encounters into creation myths to reassure ourselves and our offspring that it was somehow ‘meant to be’.

If Douglas is distrustful of literature and art in general, preferring the cold data provided by science, Connie is interested in everything that goes on around her: Art, film, fiction, music; she seemed to have seen and read and listened to pretty much everything, with the passion and clear, uncluttered mind of the autodidact. .

Chalk and cheese but, as it probably happened with couples all over the world, each seeks in the other something that is missing in his or her own life. Douglas wants a bit of the dash and dazzle of the social graces, Connie wants some peace and stability after too many years on wild living:
Being with me, said Connie, was like carrying a large, old-fashioned fire extinguisher around with her at all times, and I took satisfaction in this.

To illustrate their opposing temperaments, I have a little dialogue from when Douglas is trying to teach Connie to play badminton:

Badminton lacks the young-executive swagger of squash or the romance of tennis, but it remains the world’s most popular racket sport and its best practitioners are world-class athletes with killer instincts.
‘A shuttlecock can travel at up to 220 miles an hour,’ I’d tell Connie, as she stood doubled over at the net. ‘Stop. Laughing!’
‘But it’s got feathers,’ she’d say, ‘and I feel embarrassed, swatting at this thing with feathers. It’s like we’re trying to kill this finch’ and then she’d laugh again.

You can probably see the danger in this attitude. Safety and a steady income can only carry you so far. After a couple of decades of this boring routine, you might want a little more excitement, some added challenge in your life. So Connie is ready to jump ship, and Douglas must look back and find in their past some reason, some motive strong enough to keep her by his side.

Beside the detailed account of their personal history, the novel spends a lot of time discussing art, tourism, cuisine, etc. while the family moves from Paris to Amsterdam, to Munich, Venice, Florence, Madrid, Barcelona. I have been to all of these places, and to most of the museums mentioned, and I am also familiar with most of the paintings referenced here, but I can understand how some readers might be less fascinated with this section of the novel. Luckily, Nicholls treats the subject in a light manner, with lots of black humor, as everything that can go wrong for Douglas will go disastrously wrong with a stubborn consistency. From booking rooms in a bawdy house to fracas with biker gangs, the bad karma culminates in the split of the family long before the vacation is over. Douglas can no longer pretend that things will work out fine if only he is persistent enough, and must for once be honest with himself about his own attitude problems, especially in trying to be a strict authoritarian with his rebel son.

‘Lonely’ is a troubling word and not one to be tossed around lightly. It makes people uncomfortable, summoning up as it does all kinds of harsher adjectives, like ‘sad’ or ‘strange’. I have always been well liked, I think, always well regarded and respected, but having few enemies is not the same as having many friends, and there was no denying that I was, if not ‘lonely’, more solitary than I’d hoped to be at that time.

Also: I had always been led to believe that ageing was a slow and gradual process, the creep of a glacier. Now I realise that it happens in a rush, like snow falling off a roof.

These last two quotes I think also illustrate why I like the prose of Nicholls, and his approach to the subject of romance, without frills and embellishment, but honest enough and true to what most of us experienced at one point or another. I cannot finish my review though without mentioning two aspects of is writing that I find less appealing:
- Some of the character traits are exaggerated, the difference in personalities is amplified for artistic reasons. I find it hard to believe that in thirty years of marriage the two remain true to their younger selves, that they do not rub off the rough corners and do not ‘borrow’ more from the style of the other. Douglas is still wary of fiction and Connie is still a loose cannon. Most of all, both of them are even more firmly entrenched in their respective camps, Douglas in his scientific dryness, Connie in her liberal arts. I don’t believe there can be such a strong dychotomy between science and art, they are not incompatible, one strong interest doesn not exclude the other.
- For a very intelligent adult, Douglas is making every major mistake possible in raising his son, deliberately pushing him away and not giving an inch from his rigid system of values that apparently he inherited from his own dour and intransigent father. The message being here that no matter how hard we try, in the end we turn into our own parents and are cursed to make the same mistakes as them when it is our turn to raise children.
- (view spoiler)
- Lastly, as in One Day , the author is too fond of a low punch to extract emotion from his readers, by killing innocent characters out of the blue. (view spoiler)

In conclusion, a very well written and emotionally charged novel that probably deserves a higher rating than the one my pet peeves decided on. I will be reading more from Nicholls, Starter For One looking like a good candidate for next.
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Quotes Algernon (Darth Anyan) Liked

David Nicholls
“I had always been led to believe that ageing was a slow and gradual process, the creep of a glacier. Now I realise that it happens in a rush, like snow falling off a roof.”
David Nicholls, Us

David Nicholls
“Was it the happiest day of our lives? Probably not, if only because the truly happy days tend not to involve so much organisation, are rarely so public or so expensive. The happy ones sneak up, unexpected.”
David Nicholls, Us

David Nicholls
“But how can you not like music? That's the same as not liking food! Or sex!”
David Nicholls, Us
tags: music

David Nicholls
“I have always been well liked, I think, always well regarded and respected, but having few enemies is not the same as having many friends, and there was no denying that I was, if not "lonely", more solitary than I'd hoped to be at that time.”
David Nicholls, Us

David Nicholls
“Familiarity, globalisation, cheap travel, mere weariness had diluted our sense of foreign-ness.”
David Nicholls, Us

Reading Progress

December 26, 2014 – Started Reading
December 26, 2014 – Shelved
January 13, 2015 – Shelved as: 2015
January 13, 2015 – Finished Reading

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