Thursday, October 18, 2018

Book Review Reloaded: Us

Us - David Nicholls
Harper Publishers
418 Pages

This article first appeared on East Niagara Post on February 24, 2015. It is repeated here as I work to put all my book reviews in one place. They will be posted on Thursdays or Fridays and only be altered from the original in that I will add publisher information and pages. Hopefully, by revisiting these reviews, other people might find a book they'd like to pick up for their own enjoyment.

Occasionally, I pick up a book from the library that isn’t in the normal realm of my reading interests. Sometimes that book turns out to be absolutely wonderful. Us by David Nicholls is one of those wonderful books. This is a story that explores the life of a middle-aged man as he is yanked unceremoniously from his comfortable life and forced to take on the challenges of change.

Douglas Petersen is no ladies man, just a lonely biochemist with barely adequate social skills. Yet, somehow as a young man, woos a woman who he initially thought was way out of his league. Amazingly, he is able to secure a second date with the wild living Connie and eventually they get married.

Now two decades later, Connie drops a bomb on poor Douglas. She’s decided that she wants a divorce. It’s not that she doesn’t love him. It’s just that she’s become bored with her life and misses the spontaneity of her younger days. Still, she thinks that the three of them, Connie, Douglas, and their seventeen year old son, Albie, should go on their grand tour of the continent. Of course, Albie wants nothing to do with his parents tagging along on his last trip before university.

With the bombshell dropped into his lap, Douglas treats us to a series of flashbacks of his life with Connie intermingled with present day trials and tribulations. His narrative is dry, witty, and even humorous although Douglas tries not to be. He tends to look at life with a practical eye and doesn’t truly understand many of the nuances of social interactions.

Through Douglas’s meandering tale through the past and present, we see the marriage between Douglas and Connie blossom into parenthood and then into immeasurable grief. The birth of their first child, a daughter, is a glorious occasion that turns tragic after the baby died a few days later. A second child, Albie, is born a short while later. His new son  immediately bonds with his mother and Douglas, while well-meaning, has a difficult time connecting. This dilemma does not lessen as Albie grows into young adulthood.

It is Douglas’s hope and plan that the trip to the continent with his wife and son will repair the cracked relationships. He can’t imagine why Connie would want to risk the tumult of change when they seemed so comfortable. And all he’s done for Albie is make sure that he grows up right. He did it all for love. Why could no one understand that?

Immediately, the trip to the continent does not go as Douglas has planned. His wife and son are interested in art in the museums than the sights around each country they visit. Additionally, Albie meets a girl and disappears with her to the chagrin of both parents. After a futile attempt to reconnect, both parents decide to give him some space and head home to London. At the last moment, Douglas leaves Connie at the airport to win back his son, and thus vicariously, his departing wife.

Douglas criss-crosses Europe following frayed threads of his son’s trail. Amid his amateur detective work, Douglas meets up with a divorced woman, Freya. While he feels guilt for spending time with this woman as his wife sits at home waiting for news, he feels a spark he hasn’t felt in a long time. Although he doesn’t acknowledge it directly, he enjoys the company of this other woman.

Meanwhile, he finally finds out where his son can be found. Leaving Freya behind, he rushes to win back Albie. Once reunited, they decide to spend at least a day or two together at the beach before Douglas returns home to London. However, a life threatening situation bonds the two far more than just sharing a day in the sun. Connie rushes from England to join her family in its time of need.

At first it appears that maybe Douglas has succeeded at saving the small family. But after his recovery, Connie follows through with her initial plan to leave and continue life on her own. Douglas seems resigned to the fact and, although sad, goes along with it. There is a little self pity on his part, but since he is a rational man, he sees the sense in it and comes to terms with the new arrangement.

In the end, we have been treated to the tale of a man who was going through a midlife crisis, but was not aware of it. His highly analytical mind tends to come across as prudish and superior, and again he is completely unaware of this. Douglas tries to rationalize other people’s thoughts and actions without ever completely understanding the social ramifications of his own actions to the perceived actions in his mind.

David Nicholls takes us on an journey through a man’s mind. Douglas Petersen thinks he has it all figured out, only to discover that nothing is as easy as he thinks it is. Petersen believes that being comfortable and secure in his fifties is the reward for living the good life. He has no idea how anyone else around him really feels. Nicholls delivers through Douglas’s eyes the life of a man as he attempts to overcome and accept changes that he didn’t even know was coming.

Sometimes, Nicholls gets a little tedious in his descriptive work, though that could be an author trying to capture the mundane parts of everyday life. His realistic approach to this crisis reminds us that all is not a bed of roses in real life. Magical, storybook endings don’t just happen. Each of our lives is hard work, and just as we think we have a grasp on understanding it, a new situation rears its head to remind us we are mere mortals.

With Us, David Nicholls delivers an accurate, somber and hilariously funny glimpse at all our lives. Through the actions of Douglas Petersen, we emphasize with futility and learn to just take life as it comes, especially when dealing with our children. That exasperation that we all sometimes feel is deftly transported to the page.

Although on paper Craig Bacon is considered to be entering middle age, he still acts 15….a lot. Follow his disjointed ramblings on Twitter at @craigbacon1973.