Laugh and cry with Us
We've waited five long years (or 1,825 days) for a follow-up to One Day and David Nicholls does not disappoint. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Us is a bittersweet novel that we can all relate to, looking at love and family, husbands and wives, parents and children.
Focussing on Douglas Petersen, he thought he understood his wife's need to 'rediscover herself' now that their son is leaving home. Except that Connie announces that she will be leaving too. Douglas resolves to make their last family holiday together into the trip of a lifetime: one that will draw the three of them closer, and win the respect of his son. One that Douglas hopes will make Connie fall in love with him all over again. What could possibly go wrong? Dramatic pause...
Described by The Telegraph as 'a quiet joy', Us is a beautifully written book that will make you laugh and make you cry. But you shouldn't just take our word for it. Bookseller James Davies at Waterstones Hayward Heath puts it best: "It's a strong, well formed novel, with superb characterisation, emotion and development.... If you enjoyed One Day then you will love this! Another fantastic, un-put-down-able read that will make you giggle and find its way into your heart."
Read the opening pages below.
The sweet habit of each other had begun to put lines around her mouth, lines that looked like quotation marks – as if everything she said had been said before.
Lorrie Moore, Agnes of Iowa
1. the burglars
Last summer, a short time before my son was due to leave home for college, my wife woke me in the middle of the night.
At first I thought she was shaking me because of burglars. Since moving to the country my wife had developed a tendency to jerk awake at every creak and groan and rustle. I’d try to reassure her. It’s the radiators, I’d say; it’s the joists contracting or expanding; it’s foxes. Yes, foxes taking the laptop, she’d say, foxes taking the keys to the car, and we’d lie and listen some more. There was always the ‘panic button’ by the side of our bed, but I could never imagine pressing it in case the alarm disturbed someone – say, a burglar for instance.
I am not a particularly courageous man, not physically imposing, but on this particular night I noted the time – a little after four – sighed, yawned and went downstairs. I stepped over our useless dog, padded from room to room, checked windows and doors then climbed the stairs once more.
‘Everything’s fine,’ I said. ‘Probably just air in the water pipes.’
‘What are you talking about?’ said Connie, sitting up now. ‘It’s fine. No sign of burglars.’
‘I didn’t say anything about burglars. I said I think our marriage has run its course. Douglas, I think I want to leave you.’
I sat for a moment on the edge of our bed.
‘Well at least it’s not burglars,’ I said, though neither of us smiled and we did not get back to sleep that night.
2. douglas timothy petersen
Our son Albie would be leaving the family home in October and all too soon afterwards so would my wife. The events seemed so closely linked that I couldn’t help thinking that if Albie had flunked his exams and been obliged to retake, we might have had another good year of marriage.
But before I say any more about this and the other events that took place during that particular summer, I should tell you a little about myself and paint some sort of ‘portrait in words’. It shouldn’t take long. My name is Douglas Petersen and I am fifty-four years old. You see that intriguing final ‘e’ in the Petersen? I’m told it’s the legacy of some Scandinavian heritage, some great-grandfather, though I have never been to and have no interesting stories to tell about Scandinavia. Traditionally, Scandinavians are a fair, handsome, hearty and uninhibited people and I am none of those things. I am English. My parents, both deceased now, raised me in Ipswich; my father a doctor, my mother a teacher of biology. ‘Douglas’ came from her nostalgic affection for Douglas Fairbanks, the Hollywood idol, so there’s another red herring right there. Attempts have been made over the years to refer to me as ‘Doug’ or ‘Dougie’ or ‘Doogie’. My sister, Karen, self-proclaimed possessor of the Petersen’s sole ‘big personality’, calls me ‘D’, ‘Big D’, ‘the D-ster’ or ‘Professor D’ – which, she says, would be my name in prison – but none of these have stuck and I remain Douglas. My middle name, incidentally, is Timothy, but it’s not a name that serves anyone particularly well. Douglas Timothy Petersen. I am, by training, a biochemist.
Appearance. 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. What can I add? Once, at a dinner party, the conversation turned to ‘who would play you in the film of your life?’ There was a lot of fun and laughter as comparisons were made to various film stars and television personalities. Connie, my wife, was likened to an obscure European actress, and while she protested – ‘she’s far too glamorous and beautiful’, etc. – I could tell that she was flattered. The game continued, but when it came to my turn a silence fell. Guests sipped their wine and tapped their chins. We all became aware of the background music. It seemed that I resembled no famous or distinctive person in the entire history of the world – meaning, I suppose, that I was either unique or the exact opposite. ‘Who wants cheese?’ said the host, and we moved quickly on to the relative merits of Corsica versus Sardinia, or something or other.
Anyway. I am fifty-four years old – did I say that? – and have one son, Albie, nicknamed ‘Egg’, 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.
So it’s a small family, somewhat meagre, and I think we each of us feel sometimes that it is a little too small, and each wish there was someone else there to absorb some of the blows. Connie and I also had a daughter, Jane, but she died soon after she was born.
3. the parabola
There is, I believe, a received notion that, up to a certain point, men get better-looking with age. If so, then I’m beginning my descent of that particular parabola. ‘Moisturise!’ Connie used to say when we first met, but I was no more likely to do this than tattoo my neck and consequently I now have the complexion of Jabba the Hutt. I’ve looked foolish in a T-shirt for some years now but, health-wise, I try to keep in shape. I eat carefully to avoid the fate of my father, who died of a heart attack earlier than seemed right. His heart ‘basically exploded’ said the doctor – with inappropriate relish, I felt – and consequently I jog sporadically and self-consciously, unsure of what to do with my hands. Put them behind my back, perhaps. I used to enjoy playing badminton with Connie, though she had a tendency to giggle and fool about, finding the game ‘a bit silly’. It’s a common prejudice. Badminton lacks the young-executive swagger of squash or the romance of tennis, but it remains the world’s most popular racket sport and its best practitioners are world-class athletes with killer instincts. ‘A shuttlecock can travel at up to 220 miles an hour,’ I’d tell Connie, as she stood doubled over at the net. ‘Stop. Laughing!’ ‘But it’s got feathers,’ she’d say, ‘and I feel embarrassed, swatting at this thing with feathers. It’s like we’re trying to kill this finch,’ and then she’d laugh again.
What else? For my fiftieth birthday Connie bought me a beautiful racing bike that I sometimes ride along the leafy lanes, noting nature’s symphony and imagining what a collision with an HGV would do to my body. For my fifty-first, it was running gear, for my fifty-second, an ear- and nasal-hair trimmer, an object that continues both to appal and fascinate me, snickering away deep in my skull like a tiny lawnmower. The subtext of all these gifts was the same: do not stay still, try not to grow old, don’t take anything for granted.
Nevertheless, there’s no denying it; I am now middle-aged. I sit to put on socks, make a noise when I stand and have developed an unnerving awareness of my prostate gland, like a walnut clenched between my buttocks. I had always been led to believe that ageing was a slow and gradual process, the creep of a glacier. Now I realise that it happens in a rush, like snow falling off a roof.
By contrast, my wife at fifty-two years old seems to me just as attractive as the day I first met her. If I were to say this out loud, she would say, ‘Douglas, that’s just a line. No one prefers wrinkles, no one prefers grey.’ To which I’d reply, ‘But none of this is a surprise. I’ve been expecting to watch you grow older ever since we met. Why should it trouble me? It’s the face itself that I love, not that face at twenty-eight or thirty-four or forty-three. It’s that face.’
Perhaps she would have liked to hear this but I had never got around to saying it out loud. I had always presumed there would be time and now, sitting on the edge of the bed at four a.m., no longer listening out for burglars, it seemed that it might be too late.
‘How long have you—?’
‘A while now.’
‘So when will you—?’
‘I don’t know. Not any time soon, not until after Albie’s left home. After the summer. Autumn, the new year?’ Finally: ‘Can I ask why?’
4. b.c. and a.c.
For the question, and the ultimate answer, to make sense, some context might be necessary. Instinctively, I feel my life could be divided into two distinct parts – Before Connie and After Connie, and before I turn in detail to what happened that summer, it might be useful to give an account of how we met. This is a love story, after all. Certainly love comes into it.
Us by David Nicholls is out now in paperback and, as we love it so much, it's half price until 13th May 2015.