Sunday, November 2, 2014

Book Review: "Us" by David Nicholls

Douglas Petersen is a mild-mannered biochemist in his early 50s. He craves order and although he thinks he has a good sense of humor and the ability to enjoy himself, he isn't one to loosen his inhibitions frequently, or give up plans for spontaneity. He and his wife, Connie, have a son, Albie, who is planning to go to college once the summer ends. And then one night, Douglas' life is upended when Connie awakens him.

"I said I think our marriage has run its course. Douglas, I think I want to leave you."

Connie's declaration throws Douglas completely for a loop. But she isn't ready to make a definitive decision on their marriage just yet. They had planned to take Albie on a European tour over the summer (which they nicknamed "The Grand Tour") in an effort to show him some of the world's greatest art, architecture, and history. Douglas has the entire trip planned down to the minute. Connie still wants to go on the trip, and not reveal their discussions to Albie, and when they return from their travels, she'll make a decision.

"To contemplate a life without her; I found it inconceivable. Literally so. I was not able to conceive of it. And so I decided that it could not be allowed to happen."

Douglas is determined to save his marriage, and approaches their trip with utter gusto. But Douglas' need to keep everyone on schedule, his obsessive reading travel and art history books and regurgitating the information at will, and his desire for order exacerbates many of the couple's problems, not to mention furthers the tension between him and Albie, whom Douglas believes has always favored his mother. And although they all try (Connie and Douglas more than Albie) to keep on trying, it isn't long before everything goes horribly awry.

Us is the story of a man always in control who finds a situation he cannot control—and one he cares about more than everything. He wants to prove to Connie that she shouldn't give up on their relationship, and he is determined to try to salvage his relationship with his son. But can a person really change their nature? Can the issues that have arisen throughout a relationship suddenly disappear?

The book switches between past and present, with Douglas chronicling The Grand Tour and the events they encounter, as well as reminiscing about their relationship from the start, when the two wholly different people met and charmed each other into eventually building a life together. Douglas certainly sees the tensions and issues that have occurred through the years, but for a man who is so intelligent, he isn't particularly observant or attuned to his emotions or others'.

David Nicholls' One Day was one of the best books I read in 2010, and the movie was one of my favorites as well. Needless to say, I was eagerly anticipating this book, but sadly, I found myself really disappointed. I thought the book went on for far too long and just kept repeating the same themes—Douglas cannot be spontaneous, Connie is frustrated by this, Douglas gets upset with Albie, etc. Even certain incidents in the plot seemed straight out of central casting—saying the wrong things when attempting to speak a foreign language, getting stoned in Amsterdam and running into prostitutes, etc.

But the biggest problem I had with Us was that the book was narrated by Douglas, and I didn't really like his character very much. Sure, he's self-deprecating, and knows what his shortcomings are, but I didn't find him particularly sympathetic—in fact, I didn't love any of the characters. I'm sad that I didn't enjoy it, but other reviews I've seen on Amazon really had, so maybe suddenly all of my sappiness disappeared...

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