Friday 23 February 2018

Books: Another day dawns for love in middle-age

Fiction: Us, David Nicholls , Hodder & Stoughton, tpbk, 416pp, €19.85

Solid follow-up: Fans of One Day, made into a movie starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess, will not be disappointed by David Nicholls' new novel
Solid follow-up: Fans of One Day, made into a movie starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess, will not be disappointed by David Nicholls' new novel

David Nicholls’ 2009 novel One Day is a book that has come to define a generation. The novel told the story of two college friends as their relationship progressed over the years and it struck a chord with millions of readers who came of age in a similar pre-mobile phone era.

David Nicholls’ 2009 novel One Day is a book that has come to define a generation. The novel told the story of two college friends as their relationship progressed over the years and it struck a chord with millions of readers who came of age in a similar pre-mobile phone era.

At the time, grown men whose opinions I respected took me aside to tell me with quiet intensity about the book, tears starting in their eyes. I read the book, ready to be swept away by a beautiful love story but what I found was a standard enough romantic novel, the only difference from the norm being that it was written by a man. Still, millions of readers around the world loved it and felt it perfectly summed up their own coming-of-age experience. It was a huge bestseller in Ireland also, with book clubs across the country devouring it.

As well as a novelist, Nicholls is a talented screenwriter — he wrote the script for the BBC adaptation of Great Expectations, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and a rake of episodes of the drama Cold Feet. It is this latter programme that his novels most resemble, navigating that world of grown-up, lived-in, real-life love.

Five years later and Nicholls is back with his much-anticipated new novel, simply titled Us. Expectations are understandably high and it has already been longlisted for the Booker prize, although it did not make the shortlist.

Us tells the story of Douglas, his wife Connie and their teenage son Albie. Albie is about to leave home for college and at the beginning of the book Connie has come to the realisation that she wants to leave home too. As the book opens, she shakes Douglas awake in the middle of the night to tell him she thinks their marriage has run its course.

Douglas still loves Connie, has only ever loved Connie, and is devastated by the news. The three have planned a family holiday, a grand tour across Europe as a final hurrah before their son starts college. It’s a good conceit and Nicholls uses the journey to highlight the current strains on the family’s relationship, as well as the difficulties of watching your once-sweet child become an obnoxious adult. This present-tense action is juxtaposed with Douglas’s reflections on his life with Connie, how they met and fell in love, and how they built their life together. It’s a sad, contemplative story, made more powerful by its ordinariness.

Nicholls just gets relationships, particularly long-term, everyday relationships, and that’s what readers will love about this book. Nicholls (47), is writing very much for readers of his own age group, who are likely struggling with similar problems of readjustment, reassessment and perhaps even with separation and divorce. It’s a refreshing change from another novel about finding Mr or Mrs Right.

He writes well too on the particular sadness of children growing up and moving away from home and on ageing. “I had always been led to believe that ageing was a slow and gradual process, the creep of a glacier. Now I realise that it happens in a rush, like snow falling off a roof.”

I found this almost oppressively sad at times, but Nicholls describes the book as a tragicomedy and I have to admit to laughing out loud at times, not least at Douglas’s encounter with a friendly prostitute in Amsterdam at a time of personal crisis. ‘A nervous breakdown in a red-lit booth was a breach in etiquette.’

One Day had a tendency towards the melodramatic and Nicholls hasn’t shaken off that tendency here. His descriptions and his dialogue can be a bit clunky and inauthentic but he seems to know this himself; when he describes Douglas and Connie as lying in a ‘tangle of limbs’ Douglas says, “A tangle of limbs. Where did I get that from? Perhaps one of the novels that Connie encourages me to read.”

But none of that really matters. Nicholls gets the feelings just right, and for readers that will be the most important thing. This is a solid follow-up to One Day that won’t disappoint fans.

Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709 350

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