As I write this review I’m in my mid-twenties and single; marriage and fatherhood seems a long way off. So it was with some trepidation that I delved into US by David Nicholls, about a man in his early fifties, months away from celebrating the 25th anniversary of his marriage, from which has stemmed a moody, artistically gifted teenage son. One night, not long before young Albie is due to leave for college, Douglas Petersen’s wife makes the declaration that she feels their marriage has run its course. She wants to leave him. Not immediately, Connie clarifies, but after their final family holiday, the self-termed ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, which they’d been planning for ages. And so, for the rest of the novel’s duration, Douglas sets about repairing his marriage, fixing his fractured relationship with his son, and ensuring that their ‘final’ holiday instead reinvigorates the familial unit.
But US isn’t a novel about happy endings; at least not in the fairy-tale sense readers of popular romances might expect. US isn’t a romance novel; its one man’s journey of self-discovery, as he exposes his, and his family’s flaws and idiosyncrasies that have led to this point, the precipice of marital destruction. Douglas’s is an amusing narrator, self-depreciative and brutally honest; a good man who, like all of us, has the bad habit of articulating the wrong thought, or phrasing a comment in such a way that causes offence. He is a man who wants the best for his family, as any father and husband does, but can’t enunciate in a manner that doesn’t derive ire from his wife and child.
The novel flits back and forth between the past and present, recounting the early days of Douglas and Connie’s relationship, through to their marriage and the intervening years through to the Grand Tour. It’s fascinating reading about these characters as they age over the course of more than twenty years; the quirks that were cute in youth can quickly devolve into aggravations. US is a study – a sensationally entertaining one, it should be added – into relationships and their natural evolution. As a single man in his mid-twenties it got me thinking about the future; which makes me wonder how older readers, in a similar situation as Douglas, will respond to Nicholls’ novel.
US is about the other side of the tried and trusted ‘happily ever after’ cliché – the side that’s rarely broadcasted, because it doesn’t make for a ‘feel good’ story. But don’t mistake the novel for a downbeat take on ‘marriage gone wrong.’ There is plenty of hilarity to be had between the tear-jerking moments and the captivating prose. US makes my list for one of 2014’s best reads. It’s something I want to return to, maybe fifteen years from now, when Douglas’ life might be a more apt reflection of my own.