Even Better than One Day says the blurb. Well I’m not too sure.
Us tells the story of Douglas and his family – Connie his beautiful wife, and Albie their son. Douglas is a scientist with a limited understanding of people, Connie a beautiful artist who seems to have chosen him on the rebound from a torrid and possibly violent relationship: just when Douglas turned up Connie needed the settled kind of person that he was, and so the die were cast – they married.
Years later Connie informs Douglas she wants to leave him. He is desperate for the marriage to continue – he loves her deeply. In an attempt to cement their relationship, and create bonds within the family, Douglas organises a rail trip round Europe – all the usual destinations – Paris, Amsterdam, Italy. This book tells the story of that trip, coupled with a series of flashbacks in which Douglas describes the history of his relationship with Connie, and with Albie, the son who he can never seem to understand.
Nicholls is a good writer with a sound sense of humour, and there are moments that will make you smile, though some of the humour is a bit forced. The novel introduces a series of minor characters who seem quite real, despite a tendency to stereotyping – the young Australian girl, Connie’s ex, even Douglas himself seem to some extent to have come ready packaged, off the shelf. The idea that the scientist can’t really understand people, his lack of empathy, the rebellious son, the beautiful but frustrated artist – these are all fairly standard types.
Nicholls builds the narrative around the European trip, which is a good idea: the Grand Tour is itemised inside the back cover, and there are visits to galleries so that the paintings form a significant and mostly interesting backdrop to the story.
I have to say that I found One Day much more moving and satisfying. I suppose the problem of writing from the point of view of an emotionally stultified scientist is that they are not the sort of person it’s very easy to sympathise with, so in the end the jokes are ok, and you sort of do want to know what happens to their marriage, but the narrator was really just a bit annoying. I suppose that’s why Connie left him!