An extended version of this is available at my blog, http://wp.me/p3z9AH-1Bc" target="_blank">The Irresponsible Reader.
There's a saying, cited in popular song, that if you love someone you must set them free. Well, that's just nonsense. If you love someone, you bind them to you with heavy metal chains.
While not popularly endorsed, I can't imagine many people who haven't thought that at one point or another.
Connie Peterson has decided that it's time for her marriage to end. She and her husband, Douglas, have finished their work -- raising their son, Albie -- inexplicably nicknamed "Egg" -- (you tell me: why would you call your son Egg?). She's not angry, she's not been betrayed, she just thinks they've run their course -- they'll go on the big tour of the Continent they've been planning to celebrate Albie finishing school, then come home and probably wrap things up.
Douglas wasn't prepared for this, can't imagine living life without his wife, so he latches on to the probably nature of his wife's wishes: he's going to pull out all the stops on this trip, be the best dad, the best husband, the best version of himself and convince her to stick with the "'til death do us part" bit.
There's a few problems with his plan: he's not entirely sure what it is that he's not doing right (the readers will pretty much suss it out from flashbacks); his son is a snot who won't help his dad out at all with repairing their relationship; Douglas is somewhat klutzy and really can't express his emotions in any way to his family; and Connie's just an unpleasant person, seemingly mercurial, and the reader (well, this reader, anyway) can't see why Douglas would fall for this woman. I can see initial infatuation/attraction -- but as far as I can see, the only reason to stick with her is Douglas' own belief in the meaning of commitment.
So, starting in Paris, the Peterson's embark on a tour of Europe, and things almost immediately fall apart (with occasional moments where you think Douglas will win Connie back). But Albie clearly doesn't want to be with either of his parents -- although he has no problem spending their money. Connie frequently seems to be toying with Douglas. And Douglas just seems hapless.
Alternating with the narrative of a European tour to make the Griswolds' look fun and relaxing are a series of flashbacks chronicling the courtship and early marriage of Douglas and Connie. Like I said earlier
, it's sort of the male perspective of Landline
without the phone.
Here's where I'm torn: the novel is told with heart, wit and understanding. The Petersons -- and others they meet -- come across as real people, warts and all ("all" being mostly other warts). There's tragedy, hope and laughs. -- on the same page Nicholls can elicit a chuckle or at least a smile, he can turn on a dime and tug your heart-strings. Us is really, really, really well-written. I'd give it 4-5 stars just on that. But there's more to a book than just the writer's skill -- there's characters and story. And Us just doesn't pull those off successfully (and I know Nicholls is more than capable of it -- see One Day)
I liked Douglas -- both in flashback and the present -- I was pulling for him, wishing his family would take a minute to understand him. Albie, I could understand. I thought he was an ungrateful twerp, but I could believe it as a stage in life, and see glimpses of the decent adult he'd become -- but really, I didn't want to spend a whole lot of time with him. Connie I liked (mostly) in flashback, and could barely tolerate in the present -- for all his flaws, she's throwing away a good, devoted husband for no real reason.
The story was problematic, too. Nicholls really seems to point in one direction, and even seems to resort to a couple of clichés to get to his destination. But then he veers off to the real resolution that he wants -- and gets his characters there by sheer force of his will. There's a missing link or three between where the story is going and where it ends up. In the end, at least one character acts in a manner contrary to everything we've seen -- and we're given no real justification for it just to get to the conclusion Nicholls wants.
I just couldn't buy it.
So there we are -- a wonderful depiction of horrid people acting in ways that ultimately don't make sense. I can't recommend it, as much as I want to/expected to. Your results may vary, of course.