Note: This review is of the special preview edition of the uncopyedited manuscript, which the publisher was kind enough to provide me after a fair amount of groveling.
As I read Us, I was reminded of one of my favorite Spanish language songs, Historia de un Amor, a song about an epic love story. Mr. Nicholls vividly captures the passionate exuberance of young love, and as we journey through the years with our couple, we witness what so often happens to that love over the course of time. This truly is a modern love story, in all its joyous, ecstatic, monotonous, heartbreaking, gut wrenching honesty.
In Us, we meet Douglas Peterson, a middle aged biochemist who has it pretty good. He has a job he likes, and a wife he adores. But because no one can ever have everything, he also has a distant teen-aged son, who is a source of constant frustration. Oh, and his beloved wife has just announced that she thinks she the marriage is done. The story that ensues is Douglas desperately trying to convince her otherwise, while he valiantly tries to understand and bond with his son. In describing Douglas' relationship with his son Albie, Mr. Nicholls has given us one of the most heartbreaking quotes I have ever read:
"I have had some experience of unrequited love in the past and that was no picnic, I can tell you. But the unrequited love of one's only living offspring has its own particular slow acid burn."
Douglas narrates, and he really could be anyone we know. He comes across as mostly likable, but like any of us, in moments of stress (or distress), he can thoughtlessly lash out. More than once while reading Us, I shook my head sadly and thought, "Oh, Douglas, how could you?" as if he were a real person, a friend whose side I want to be on, but find it impossible to excuse his actions or words.
There's just something about David Nicholls' characters that either strike a chord with readers, or which readers find absolutely loathsome. I fall into the first group, and for this reason he is one of my absolute favorite writers. Although at times I have difficulty buying into why his characters do what they do (who tells their spouse they think the marriage is over and then decides it's a good idea to take an extended family vacation together?), I keep coming back because he never fails to keep my head nodding in agreement as he describes fears, insecurities, social awkwardness, and even the occasional small victories. They're characteristics I recognize in myself. They are characters I would create if I possessed his gift.
If you've read and enjoyed Mr. Nicholls' other books (plural, as in you've read Starter for Ten and/or The Understudy in addition to One Day), you won't be disappointed. Us is an outstanding character study of the middle class middle-age. We deeply feel for Douglas as he fumbles his way situations that make you both laugh and cringe. There were a couple of instances where Douglas found himself in extremely uncomfortable situations, and I empathized with him so deeply, I had difficulty reading on - that's how real the writing feels to me.
And as I reach that middle age malaise and find myself facing another 20 years of doing the same mindless job I've done for the last 25 years, Us did a wonderful job of reminding my why I transferred out of the art program in college when I was already halfway through. Thank you, Mr. Nicholls.