Us – David Nicholls

I think I enjoyed this novel. I think I managed to follow the story, the art and the angst. I think I had some sympathy with the main character, Douglas. But,  frankly, there was too much thought in this book. Too much of Douglas pondering life the universe and everything.  I’m not terrifically surprised that his wife despairs of him and his son isn’t too keen either.

I suppose it is a strength of the writing of this book which describes a trip round Europe interspersed with recollections of a life that the main characters are strong enough to have feelings about. Except that there is the danger that we hear so much about what Douglas is thinking and feeling that the other characters are just there to react to him. I realise that the weakness of first person narrative is that we get to hear a lot about what that character perceives but precious little about what is really going on for the other characters in the book. Here that becomes annoying, as Connie ( Douglas’ wife) is described but never really comes to life for me. She is meant to be the bohemian artist – type, who gives up her lifestyle for the rather boring, rather over organised Douglas. I know that opposites are meant to attract, and Douglas is as surprised as anyone when she adopts the more conventional lifestyle, but I’m not convinced.

The scenery of this book is meant to be splendid, and it does seem to describe the reality of the “Grand Tour ” in the twenty – first century, with trains and plains meaning that I was not always sure where the action is meant to be taking place. We are treated to descriptions of some low spots as well as the famous attractions with attendant queues. There is a lot about art here, the great paintings of Europe in both the guidebook and evoking reactions way, but I was left a bit bemused. Was that meant to anchor the action, or give the reader chance to agree with the reaction. Either way, I’m not sure if they added greatly to the overall narrative.

The story in this novel is not as strong as in its predecessor, One Day . In that book there was a welcome shift in focus, an interesting contrast of perspective.  This book is a good read, but it is so much through one character’s eyes that I think it does not quite live up to its promise. Maybe that is more realistic, but it is definitely limiting.  Possibly it is a more “male” directed book, which I do not mean to be critical in any way, and I am not suggesting that there are men and women’s books and never the twain shall meet. I just feel that my sympathies were not engaged in the same way as if this book was less relentlessly from one point of view. The narrator does have moments when he realises how he must appear to his nearest and dearest, but that does not change how he behaves or (over)reacts.

I was continually reminded of two other books written from a similar perspective, The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect, by Graeme Simsion. These feature first person narration, unlikely relationships, and extremes of behaviour (as well as much foreign travel) . Curiously I enjoyed these books more, partly because they were more extreme, funny and just less self aware. I know it’s not fair to compare these books in many ways, and Us is a very, very good book. I would undoubtedly recommend it, but with a slight warning that it is not the most optimistic book that you could read this summer.

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