During the past several years I’ve turned to Stylist Magazine for their book reviews and recommendations and have never been disappointed. Their first book club was in May, featuring Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and her book Americanah. Their second, in August, hosted Sarah Waters and her new book The Paying Guests. Both are on my shortlist of books to download. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of attending their third book club featuring David Nicholls and his new book Us. I received an advance copy and spent the preceding week devouring the pages before joining the other readers at the Freemason Hall in Covent Garden to hear Nicholls talk about his book publicly for one of the first times since it was published.
Nicholls’ told the audience that his (incredibly popular) book, One Day, was a classic love story, the central question being ‘will they or won’t they get together’. He told the audience that he wouldn’t hesitate in calling Us a love story, but one that doesn’t end with a lover’s kiss. It’s about the 25 years that come after that kiss. Its central question is ‘will they or won’t they stay together’.
A shot summary: Douglas Petersen – mid-50s, British, a scientist – is awoken in the middle of the night by his wife, Connie, who tells him that she thinks she wants to leave him when their son leaves for university in the fall. Reeling from the news, Douglas makes a last ditch effort to save his family and the life that he knows by making their last family holiday – a Grand Tour in the old style – one to remember. One in which his son will finally understand and respect him. One in which his wife will remember why she fell in love with him and keep her by his side. As the dust jacket asks, ‘What could possibly go wrong?’
The answer, of course, is everything. This book is charming, funny and sad. Douglas is a compelling narrator, moving effortlessly between present and past, telling us about himself and his family with tenderness, wry observations and rare honesty.
As Douglas recounts the tragi-comic events of the Grand Tour and examines the last 25 years to see where things have gone wrong, we’re privy to insights into his behaviour. We see the flaws that keep others from connecting with him, but also the motivation that drives his actions. It’s easy to share his heartbreak as the love and joy he has in his family gets lost in the day-in, day-out activities of being a husband and father.
I’ve been reading a lot this year, wide-ranging topics, various authors, fiction and non-fiction. I read to understand myself and the world around me. I crave that flash of recognition.
Us delivered. I recognised myself in Douglas – in his descriptions of travel and marriage, in his awkwardness in social situations, in his responses to parenting situations – and in Connie – the restless girl who always expects that life has something else to offer around the next bend.
Nicholls was warm, engaging and funny, and his openness in the Q&A session was enlightening. Here are a few observations from the night:
• Nicholls was asked about writing in first person and if he’d put a lot of himself in the character of Douglas Petersen. He said that writing first person inevitably brings about a level of impersonation, but that it wasn’t all autobiographical. He said that the character he’s most like is Emma in One Day. But, he said that he believes it is impossible to writing something that you haven’t thought or felt.
• Nicholls said that he’s never written about a successful party. He said that a party that goes well leaves you nothing to write about and that you need tension to move the story forward. Same things for the characters. He said that there is no point writing flawless characters. That you have to write about friction. He said that failure is more amusing than success. Happiness, in his experience, falls flat.
• He encouraged those of us who want to write (probably most of us who attended!) to write about the things we love, that we want to express, that we’re enthusiastic about. The writing process is difficult, but it’s easier to sustain if you’re genuinely excited about your subject.
I so recommend this book. That Nicholls is a master and has written another bestseller is obvious. Us is moving and poignant and the story will stick with you after you shut the final cover. And the event itself was inspiring and enjoyable, proving once again the vital role Stylist Magazine plays in the literary landscape.