If I had a list called “Books I Didn’t Think Were Good but Is Actually Really Good,” the book Us by David Nicholls would top the list (along with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Crazy Rich Asians). It’s the kind of story that I would write if I were to write a book (although my version wouldn’t be nearly as good as David’s). The title does no justice, I think, because it’s so vague—but what it is—it’s a story about love, regret, and second chances.
I first picked up this novel perhaps two years ago from the library, and for some reason, I just really liked it. It was the kind of novel that stayed in my mind and pops up every once in a while. I can say that there’s not many books that does that. So when I saw it at the library last month, I decided to read it again for the second time.
Us is a story about a couple in their early fifties—written from the perspective of the husband, Douglas Petersen, a biochemist by training but who currently works as a project manager for a large, multinational pharmaceutical company in England. The story of course is set in England (also where the author is from), in the suburbs, and begins with Douglas’s wife of almost twenty-five years waking him up in the middle of the night and telling him that she’s thinking about leaving him.
Her abrupt, brash statement was something that Douglas did not expect at all. From his point of view, they’ve had a happy marriage. Their son is almost off to college. He’s looking forward to becoming an empty nester with her. But she doesn’t feel the same way.
Of course, the timing couldn’t have been worse. They’ve been planning a month-long trip around Europe with their son Albie to be taken the summer before Albie goes off to college. So when she suddenly gives him the news, he asks her if she wants to cancel the trip. She said no.
Thus, the trip happens according to plan. But as they traipsed around Europe, going from country to country, it’s becoming evidently clear that nobody is having a good time, especially Albie, because Douglas is a methods kind of man. He wants to stick to the itinerary and the schedules that he’s planned out for the three of them, while his wife and son wants to go with the flow.
The peak of this tension happens when they met a girl about twenty-six, a wandering accordionist whom Albie connects with, but whom Douglas disapproves for her unapologetic attitude towards hotel buffets (she stuffs a lot of things in her clothes to be eaten later). But this girl named Kat and Albie really hit it off, and they party in his hotel room, much to the dismay of their parents.
It wasn’t until one morning when they were all having breakfast together next to three businessmen who were discussing the manufacturing of guns that Albie decides to speak up. From that point on, everything went blurry for Douglas. He remembers not much except for the fact that his son spoke up against these men and told him how wrong it was for them to make guns and talk about it in broad daylight, and Douglas jumps to the defense of these men. He remembers saying, “I’d like to apologize for my son.”
What he thought was the right thing to do turned out not to be according to his wife, Connie. She was furious with him. During a conversation they had after the event, she told him that it wasn’t really about their son arguing with some men; it was more or less the fact that he did not side his son. Instead, he expressed his embarrassment and apologized for his son’s behavior.
Now, you should know that up until this point, Douglas has portrayed himself as a loving, devoted husband and father, albeit a little awkward in most social situations. While that is true, he hasn’t always expressed this love and devotion. His behavior is a far cry from a demonstration of love. It’s irritation, indignation and disappointment over and over again, Connie said.
Not surprisingly, after this incident, Albie decides to run off with his new friend Kat. Doug is heartbroken, not just because the trip is not going according to plan but also because his wife is mad at him and wants to leave him. He tells her that he’s going to find his son no matter what and apologize to Albie face-to-face.
His wife thinks he’s crazy but she relents; she goes back to England but checks in with him regularly. This is where it got really interesting—as the book progresses, Doug goes back and forth between the past and the present. This is where we see the story of a twenty-five year marriage unfold. He tells the story of how he and Connie met in their mid-twenties at his sister’s party, and how despite his awkwardness, she was attracted to him, and they had a whirlwind romance, circling the European continent together.
Finally, they get married. The first shocker comes six months after they wed, when she cheated on him. He was so oblivious and in love with her that he had no idea until she told him. This no doubt put a dent in their relationship, but they decided to move forward together. They tried for a baby and got one…everything was perfect until the baby was born prematurely and dies right after birth.
The birth and quick death of their daughter was perhaps the hardest thing that had ever happened to them, but they got through it somehow. Several years later, they had a son and named him Albert, who grows up in the shadow of his sister. Feeling lost, confused, and second-best, Albie tries to rebel against his father’s wishes, taking up photography and arts, just like his mother.
I don’t want to give away too much stuff about this book—I think overall, it’s a wonderful book for several reasons. Besides the short chapters, it was refreshing to hear the perspective of a man in his fifties who experienced a pivotal moment in his life that forced him to reflect upon the past twenty-five years and where things might’ve gone wrong with his marriage and his son. It’s not often that you read a story from the perspective of a middle-aged man who’s not having affairs, as the author says in this video. He wanted to provide a different perspective into a domestic story, and I think he achieved that quite well.
In case you’re wondering—yes, Douglas eventually finds his son in Spain, and from that point on, many pivotal conversations ensued between him and his son. In a scene between him and Albie towards the end of the book, after Albie saves his life (he had minor heart attack after being stung by a jellyfish while swimming in the ocean), Douglas expresses his regret at the kind of father he was and told Albie that even though his actions didn’t express it, he loved him and wanted him happy, just like any parent would.
If you’ve made it this far in the book, you’ll know that Douglas has always been the socially awkward, very rigid kind of man. He grew up with a father who did not express love to him on a regular basis, and he wasn’t particularly close to his mother either. Preferences for processes and stability became the foundation of his personality, making him choose a stable career in science, and later on, despite his wife’s wishes, choose to work for a company whose values he didn’t believe in just because they offered him and his family financial stability and the things that some of us may take for granted, like a pension, health insurance, etc.
Unfortunately, many of us chase the “dream” of stability in favor of things that matter more to us, like family and relationships. And I think this book hits it in the right spot, that it reminds us of how often it happens to many families—these are the kind of things that can deteriorate a relationship, when we prize one thing and neglect the other, and often it’s work that we prioritize over families. That’s exactly what Douglas did. And it’s good that he realizes it before it was too late…however, after the trip, the relationship with his wife continues to be complicated, hanging on air, while they experienced many more ups and downs.
If you made it this far, you’ll be wondering whether or not the trip changed her mind. Well, all I can say is that there is a sad ending but also a happy ending. I definitely recommend it.