I knew I was falling in love from the very first page of David Nicholls’ fourth novel, “Us.” This gifted screenwriter/novelist promises and delivers on a novel full of hilarity, warmth and poignancy. Yet beneath the humor lies a sharp portrayal of the challenges of marriage and parenthood. His prowess in mingling the two was not missed by the Man Booker Prize judges who put “Us” on their 2014 long list.
The stakes are high for our narrator, Douglas, as the story opens. His wife, Connie, announces that their 20-year marriage “has run its course,” and she thinks she wants to leave him. The idea is unthinkable to Douglas, a research scientist and a bit of a fuddy-duddy. He can’t imagine life without his Connie, a free spirit who had been leading a bohemian artist’s life in London before they married and moved to the suburbs. He tells us, “I have loved my wife to a degree that I found impossible to express, and so rarely did.” Douglas begs Connie to go through with their summer plans for a Grand Tour of Europe with their only child, Albie, before the boy leaves for university in fall. Lucky for us, she agrees.
The challenges are great for Douglas to plan a trip so special that Connie changes her mind. His experience on the Continent was almost non-existent. He grew up with a father disdainful of “anything suggesting ‘abroad’—olive oil, the metric system, eating outdoors, yoghurt,” whereas for years Connie has been rhapsodizing about youthful experiences, “sleeping on the beach in Crete,” attending a “wild party at an abandoned factory in Prague” and hooking up with a Citroen mechanic in Lyon “whose hair smelled like engine oil.”
The finicky scientist makes the arrangements with the hope of a vacation full of the art and street life that Connie loves and enrichment for their son. This creates one comical situation after another. Douglas views their stay in Amsterdam as a chance to show off his trip-planning talent. The boutique hotel he signed them up for resembles a “top-of-the-range bordello.” He and Connie are assigned to the honeymoon suite, “Venus in Furs,” with an enormous four-poster bed and black sheets, while Albie is next door in “Delta of Venus.”
Douglas says “married life is not a plateau … there are ravines and great jagged peaks and hidden crevasses that send the both of you scrabbling into darkness.” Throughout the story of the family’s summer, Nicholls seamlessly weaves the backstory in bits and pieces as Douglas remembers them—their meeting, their courtship and the 20 years of marriage.
David Nicholls has offered up a trip you will definitely want to take.