Novels can be hard on your nerves. Some rattle us; some remind us of things and people. Others just entertain. David Nicholls' latest book, "Us" leaves its readers--at least this one-- fulfilled and slightly unsettled in a good way.
The author of the best-seller, One Day takes you on a journey with a family in the midst of a break-up. The marriage is on the rocks as one main character, Connie, has announced to her husband, Douglas, that despite their upcoming family vacation through Europe, the 25- year relationship will end upon the departure of their son, Albie, for college. Set outside London and throughout Europe, the family's "Grand Tour" becomes laden with sorrows and set-backs, including painful reflections of earlier days through the eyes of Douglas -- a man seemingly both grounded and lost.
Marriage and raising children are harrowing themes for any novelist. Nicholls pulls it off, magnificently, with candor, good humor, and the requisite remorse for all that the unhappiness of life brings. The relationship between Douglas and wife, Connie, is under duress from the start, interwoven with magical periods and "honeymoons" that lead to low-points including the loss of a child.
Douglas is the straight-laced scientist and Connie is the artsy free spirit. Rather than the perfect story of opposites-attract, they manage to tug at one another's vulnerabilities, leaving little room for compromise in the marriage. But Douglas learns a lot from his failings and, hence, so do we, the reader. "My wife educated me; a common phenomenon, I think, and one that is rarely or only begrudgingly acknowledged by the husbands that I know," offers Douglas.
Marital vows are broken in the book and then repaired, as so often is the case. "In the early days of our relationship," Douglas thinks, "we made a vow; we would never be too tired to go out, we would always 'make an effort', but this was one of those solemn vows we were destined to break. Perhaps there were simply fewer things she wanted to show me, but we gradually became less adventurous after we married, after we left London, after we became parents."
The plight of parenting, the other major theme of Us leaves anyone who has done it bereft of ideas. Douglas has failed to create a bond with his son, Albie, and the fissures become major fractures that he grows destined to fix." From the first chapter, Douglas describes his relationship to his only child, Albie, as someone "to whom I am devoted but who sometimes regards me with a pure and concentrated disdain, filling me with so much sadness and regret that I can barely speak." I won't spoil the ending by telling you how far Douglas goes to change that equation.
Some critics have been hard on David Nicholls, finding fault with his plot and characters. The flaws are all there -- in the human beings who populate the story. In the end, it is about all of "us."
Tara D. Sonenshine is a Distinguished Fellow at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs. An avid reader, she is part of a virtual book club.