Douglas Petersen is fifty-four years old, a biochemist by trade who had left the laboratory some years ago to become the head of Research and Development for a large corporation. He has a beautiful, artistic wife and a seventeen year old son who is heading off to college in the fall. They live, not extravagantly but comfortably in a older country house outside of London. He was content, looking forward to an upcoming family “grand tour” of Europe (a final hurrah before son Albie leaves home), until one night his wife, Connie, informs him that she thinks their marriage has run its course and she is planning on leaving him.
In a desperate attempt to recapture some of the spark of their past relationship, Douglas insists that the planned tour still take place, although Connie is skeptical and Albie hadn’t been enthusiastic about it from the onset. Throughout the days that follow, we listen in as Douglas keeps a running commentary about the past and the present, his hopes and his fears. And, to no one’s surprise, nothing goes according to plan, especially not Douglas’ carefully arranged and meticulously scheduled plan.
Us is a beautifully written, searingly honest, deliciously wry look at the unexpected unraveling of an ordinary life. In Douglas Petersen, author David Nicholls has given us a narrator who has no illusions about who he is – or isn’t – and what he has obtained – or given up – but who is still completely thrown when his wife drops the bombshell that she is ready for the next phase of her life, which most likely won’t include him. This is a character that doesn’t sound like a construct – he sounds like your neighbor, or brother, or friend from college – even a little like what might go on inside your own head. The ache and desperation he feels, the joy at the reminiscences, the ache of past triumphs that now feel like shams – these are authentic, they feel true.
Especially poignant are Douglas’ interactions with his son. From his private ruminations we understand just how deeply he loves his son, how proud he is of him, and how he desperately wants nothing but the best for his boy. This makes it even more wincingly hard to view their conversations, where Douglas often falls far short of appearing nurturing and respectful, and Albie is more than happy to take everything very personally.
Ultimately, this book is very readable – and very relatable. While our own families may not mirror the Petersens, we certainly know others who do. To see their family’s disintegration so personally (with enough humor to keep it from becoming maudlin) is a master stroke from a very capable and talented author. Reading Us will elicit chuckles and sighs in equal amounts, and leave you surprisingly uplifted despite it all.