Saturday, November 8, 2014

Three for the Road? A Catastrophic Grand Tour of Europe in "Us", by David Nicholls

I confess I'm still at a loss as to how this novel ended up in the company of books by Siri Hustvedt and Richard Flanagan on the longlist for this year's Man Booker Prize. On the other hand, it wasn't as bad a novel to read as some of the more ambitious books that shared that privilege and even moved on to the shortlist. It's perfectly a pleasant and entertaining novel dealing with themes that most of us can understand and relate to: its narrator, Douglas Petersen is a bumbling scientist who may be brilliant at what he does but can't put a foot right on the home front any more. Now his teenage son is about head off to college and his wakes him up in the middle of the night to inform him that "I think our marriage has run its course. His reaction? He's still fixated on the idea that the reason he's awake is that someone might be breaking in. "Well, at least it's not burglars," he replies.

The last ditch effort to rebuild his relationship with his son and save his marriage to Connie, Douglas calculates, may be a carefully planned "Grand Tour" to Europe, a final family vacation to the artistic capitals before Albie leaves for college. Even as the Petersens close up their home in Reading and head off to the Eurostar train, there are clues that Douglas has got it wrong, yet again: the minute-by-minute itinerary that, while it isn't laminated, might as well be, arouses the mirth and ridicule of his wife and son. But is Douglas as hapless a victim as he seems? To what extent is he complicit in his own plight, even if it's only because he's in denial? We learn the truth (a bit less dramatic than the book's publicity materials suggest, but still poignant and moving enough, as any human relationship failures are prone to be) through a series of flashbacks, since Nicholls alternates the "present day" chapters of the Petersen family's catastrophic Grand Tour with the evolution of Connie and Douglas's relationship and marriage, as Douglas tries to pinpoint just how it all went so wrong.

This structure, and the fact that it's set against the backdrop of a road trip, reminded me very strongly of Two for the Road, the 1967 film featuring Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn as a long-married couple on a road trip to southern France. It's a non-linear movie -- at various points along the road they literally drive past earlier versions of themselves at (happier) stages of their lives making the same trip. That's somewhat the same narrative device that David Nicholls is using in this novel, only as the Finney and Hepburn characters realize what they had and lost, Douglas tries to understand whether something was always missing. Perhaps what he could bring to the marriage was never enough for Connie; but is it too late to be a father to Albie? When Albie abandons his parents after a scene in Amsterdam, setting off to go busking with a New Zealander called Cat, Douglas resolves to scour Europe for him to at least try. A series of dramatic twists and turns in the final pages make for some amusing role reversals, even if they aren't always convincing.

Ultimately, I ended up pegging this as "bloke lit", the male equivalent of chick lit. Yes, it's well-written, but had it been written by a woman about a similar kind of domestic/relationship drama, I question whether it would have made the longlist of the Man Booker prize, as Nicholls' novel did. Yes, Douglas is insecure and has an over-developed propensity for doing or saying precisely the wrong thing at precisely the wrong time, but Nicholls belabors the point to where I began to cringe every time I spotted him preparing to do it yet again. And no, I didn't feel the kind of empathy I think that Nicholls intended I should for Douglas because he was just too predictable, and ultimately, not that interesting. He's a self-pitying sad sack, and it became boring. Too many of the revelations, betrayals and epiphanies alike, ended up feeling banal even when the events themselves weren't. Sure, Nicholls is a writer whose writing, at its best, is far, far better than average, and who juggled a complex structure with aplomb. But the plot and the characters never really grabbed me. Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney are characters I've remembered for decades; in a few weeks, I'll be saying "Douglas and Connie who?"


I received an Advance Review Copy of this book from the publisher via the Amazon Vine program, in exchange for my honest opinion.

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