Comfort reads: ‘Us’ by David Nicholls

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If you are anything like me, the stress of the second wave of Covid-19 has left you reaching for the comfort of a much-loved book or film. Combined with the experience of a year abroad in Madrid, I have found myself resorting to various classics to feel at home, from Gavin and Stacey to Jane Austen.

For those who only know David Nicholls for his most famous novel, One Day, my choice may seem surprising. I am still traumatised by memories of sobbing on a train after reaching its conclusion, and it is certainly not something I’d choose to reread for comfort. But the recent BBC adaptation of Nicholl’s subsequent novel, Us, brought it to my attention as a contender for a comfort read.

‘Us’ is notably more mellow

Described by Nicholls himself as One Day’s emotional sequel, Us is notably more mellow, tracking a marriage of 25 years. The novel begins with Connie telling her husband, Douglas, that she intends to leave him once their only son leaves home for college. Despite this, the couple decide to continue with their planned European family holiday, becoming for Douglas a sort of ‘Grand Tour’ and the last chance to win his family back. 

Indeed, biochemist Douglas’s desperation to patch up his family leads him to try (with a scientific meticulousness) just a bit too hard to make the holiday perfect. Tracking their journey across various European cities, Nicholls offers us some much-needed escapism on the continent. His descriptions of the at-once thrilling and uncomfortable feeling of being abroad particularly resonated for me from Madrid, and I can empathise with Douglas’s reaction to Paris, “captivated by the wonderful wrongness of it all.”

Yet there is also something reassuring in following the all-too common interactions of this family holiday. We all know someone inclined to plan excessively like Douglas, crafting a detailed itinerary (in polypropylene wallets) and even advising himself “to maintain a sense of fun and spontaneity” at all times. More tragically, the reader can recognise the subsequent frustration of Douglas’s 17-year-old son Albie, whose attitude toward his father borders on derision. Indeed, their troubled relationship jeopardises Douglas’s grand hopes for a once-in-a-lifetime holiday for his family.  

For me, the great comfort of Us lies in the nuance and plausibility of its characters, both likeable and flawed. Connie and Douglas are a seemingly mismatched pair, and Nicholls shows us, with warmth of emotion, both their love and differences through lengthy flashbacks of their relationship. Douglas’s overly cautious character, in contrast to his artistic and free-spirited wife, is obvious all the way down to the minutiae: Connie “likes to ‘leave dishes to soak’, an act of self-deception that I’ve always abhorred.”

The great comfort of Us lies in the nuance and plausibility of its characters

Despite his flaws, Douglas is a sympathetic character. As Nicholls traces his marriage back to its origins, his underlying insecurity is clear, aware that his devotion to Connie will always be a bit more than hers to him. His distinct lack of charisma is perhaps why Nicholls describes him as the “antidote” to the brashness and arrogance of Dexter in One Day. Despite this, his love for Connie and his son is never in doubt, albeit rarely communicated.

In typical Nicholls style, the novel’s conclusion succeeds in being both poignant and heart-warming, resisting the genre’s cliché of a happy ending. For me, it is his compassionate, non-judgemental portrayal of the nuances of the family that make it a great comfort read. Rather than relying on melodrama, Nicholls uses his power of observation to find the extraordinary in an ordinary family, something we all need at this difficult time.

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