Tuesday, October 7, 2014

book review: Us by David Nicholls

The backstory: Us was longlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize. I also adored One Day, the last novel David Nicholls wrote.

The basics: Us is the story of Douglas, a middle-aged biochemist, his wife Connie, an artist, and their seventeen-year-old son Albie. Connie announces she thinks she wants to leave Douglas, but she isn't sure yet. They set out on a tour of Europe with Albie as a last family trip, both before he goes to college and perhaps for their marriage too. The present day unfolds in the narrative while Douglas also tells us the story of their marriage from the beginning.

My thoughts: After loving One Day, I was already excited for Us. When it made the Booker longlist (before I could get my hands on a galley), I was surprised and ecstatic. My expectations were high going into this novel, and although I didn't love it quite as much as One Day, it is a smartly crafted, well-written, thoughtful exploration of marriage. It's also a medium-paced travel adventure novel. This combination works quite well, but a few times I found the flashback scenes out of balance with the present-day narrative. Most fit perfectly, but some were so fascinating I was sad to leave them behind. A few were less interesting and slowed the over all narrative pace.

From the novel's opening pages, I was laughing and snickering. Douglas narrates a clear picture of himself, including his shortcomings. So much of what I loved about One Day was the style of observational writing Nicholls uses. It's present in Us too:
"My wife, when we first met and felt compelled to talk constantly about each other's faces and personalities and what we loved about each other and all of that routine, once told me that I had a 'perfectly fine face' and, seeing my disappointment, quickly added that I had 'really kind eyes,' whatever that meant. And it's true, I have a perfectly fine face, eyes that may well be 'kind but are also the brownest of browns, a reasonable-sized nose and the kind of smile that causes photographs to be thrown away."
While this story is told through Douglas's eyes, and he admits he does not often understand Connie or Albie, his careful observations help the reader clearly see Douglas and events from their points of view too. Douglas is a character who is so different from me (and at times so frustrating because of these differences) that I often marveled how well Nicholls could sustain his voice in this novel. In this sense, I felt the exasperation Connie and Albie sometimes felt; I felt like part of the story too.

As the ending of the novel approached, I was surprised to find myself as invested as I was. I had not thought I cared how the novel ended, but I soon found myself sobbing as I read the last vignettes. Us was a smartly constructed, enjoyable novel, but it's climax and ending elevate the rest of it.

Favorite passage: "But awe is a hard emotion to sustain for hours on end and soon it all became rather boring."

The verdict: The emotional impact of Us caught me by surprise. I enjoyed the novel throughout, even if the flashback scenes hindered momentum occasionally. Douglas was a fully realized character who was both funny and sad. He fascinated me, even as I often felt sorry for him. As well-written as it is, this novel is rather straight forward, and yet the ending had me crying for pages. I was so moved, I realized Nicholls somehow let this novel sneak up on me, for the whole truly is greater than its very good parts.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 416 pages
Publication date: October 28, 2014
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Us from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit all the tour stops, visit David Nicholl's website, and like him on Facebook, and enjoy this video about the novel:


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3 comments:

  1. I love novels that sneak up on me! Have never read Nicholls and was looking for a good review of his books. Will pick up a copy of Us soon. Or would you recommend starting with One Day?

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  2. I always enjoy it when a book sucks me in unexpectedly. I'm glad you ended up loving this one. Thanks for being a part of the tour!

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  3. I'm also on this tour. I think I was ruined a little by how much I loved One Day. I thought that Us was lovely, but I didn't feel like I wanted to cry when it was over or anything.

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