Us by David Nicholls

IMG_1572 Douglas and Connie, two fiftysomethings from Berkshire, are going on a modern version of the Grand Tour with their 18-year old son, Albie, after which he will go away to college. On a route which takes in Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Venice and Florence they will see improving works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Raphael, Titian, da Vinci and so forth. All is set for the trip of a lifetime: the only problem is that, before they depart, Connie says she wants to leave Douglas. After that, things subsequently do not run as smoothly as Douglas – and his itinerary – would like. What a skilful writer is David Nicholls. In other hands, Us could have been a series of set-pieces, surrounded by a bit of writing. (The screenplay for Mission: Impossible 2 was put together in exactly this way by Robert Towne, understandably slumming it for the money). For instance, Us contains an encounter with a prostitute, a night in a jail cell, a jellyfish attack…it could get wearing. But Nicholls makes the whole thing flow because he places the strained, tired relationship between Douglas and Connie – and the frayed bond between Douglas and Albie – at the core of the narrative. In other words, it is not the trains, planes and cities which drive the story, it is the people and the spaces between them. Nicholls has some lovely turns of phrase too. Douglas’ pre-trip emotional checklist includes: ‘Be open-minded and willing to try new things. For example, unusual foods from unhygienic kitchens’. Reflecting on Albie’s teenage years, he admits: ‘The most illicit act of my teenage years was to sometimes watch ITV.’ At their German hotel, ‘an elderly lady of the type that gets eaten by wolves was there to open the door for us’. Nicholls’ stratospheric previous book One Day was marketed (with a bright orange cover that did not scream ‘SUBTLETY!’) as the fluffy on-off lifelong friendship between two people who met at university, with some ’80s and ’90s tropes thrown in. Yet it contained frankly surprising emotional depth. Us (in more sober bright red) doesn’t have quite the same impact: more of a whimper than a bang. But a funny, thoughtful, well-written, occasionally insightful whimper.

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