David Nicholls
Published October 28, 2014
396 pages (hardcover)

At most American law schools, at the end of the first year, students have an option to participate in a writing competition, the goal of which is to earn a place on one of the law school’s journals.

At my law school, this competition was closed-research and entirely anonymous (each participant is assigned a number at random and entries must use an exact font, margin, spacing, etc.). Participants have a few weeks to read the materials provided, come up with a topic about which to write, and compose a well-supported, properly-cited legal paper. They must also complete a short grammar test and a cite-checking test (legal cases and articles use a specific citation method, and if you become a member of a journal, a major duty is to review articles’ citations for accuracy prior to their publication). Current members of the journals’ boards read the competition submissions and, based on those submissions, offer participants places on their journals.

Being on a journal is a big deal. Employers assume that students on prestigious journals are smart, analytical writers, so it’s a huge resume booster. And, if you’re on a journal, it gives you the opportunity to have an academic work published.

For me, participating in the competition was a nerve-wracking process. For several weeks, I did nothing but read, write, and Bluebook. But it paid off—I was offered a place on the Law Review, the most prestigious journal. I was thrilled. I immediately called my parents to share the news.

My father was happy for me . . . but his reaction was not ideal. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: I made the Law Review!

Dad: Women’s lib strikes again!

Me: What? It was an anonymous writing competition, Dad.

Dad: Oh. Well, congratulations.

Me: I have to go. Just wanted to let you know the good news.

I realize that this story makes my dad sound like a complete asshole. But he is not. He meant well (for the record, when I relayed this story to my brother, John told me that Dad couldn’t stop talking about how proud of and excited for me he was, so I know that he was genuinely proud of my accomplishment).

Unfortunately, despite how loving and caring and supportive they may be, parents are also human . . . and they have the unique ability to say the exact wrong thing from time to time. When they mean to say, “That’s great news! I’m very proud of you!” and couldn’t be happier, they get overwhelmed and say something unintentionally stupid and insulting instead.

David Nicholl’s new book is about a parent who says the wrong thing a lot. Douglas Peterson is a middle-aged British scientist—he is fastidious and analytical and practical. He’s been married for nearly twenty-five years to Connie, an artsy and spontaneous woman whom he adores and admires. They have one son, Albie, who is seventeen and takes after his mother.

Douglas is well-intentioned and loves his wife and son . . . but he fails miserably at showing them this (“The fact was I loved my wife to a degree that I found impossible to express, and so rarely did.”). He is worried about Albie’s future and his choice to study art/photography (rather than hard sciences) in college, but this is how he manages to express that fear to Albie:

The future is . . . well, it’s terrifying, Albie, you have no idea, and I want you to be well prepared for it. I want you to have skills and information that will enable you to thrive and succeed and be happy in the future. And I’m afraid spending all day colouring in does not count.

The book begins with Douglas recounting a midnight conversation with his wife. She shakes him awake; he assumes she’s heard some noise in the house. So, Douglas goes to investigate. When he returns to their bedroom, this conversation transpires:

‘Everything’s fine,’ I said. ‘Probably just air in the water pipes.’

‘What are you talking about?’ said Connie, sitting up now.

‘It’s fine. No sign of burglars.’

‘I didn’t say anything about burglars. I said I think our marriage has run its course. Douglas I think I want to leave you.’

I sat for a moment on the edge of our bed.

‘Well at least it’s not burglars,’ I said, though neither of us smiled and we did not get back to sleep that night. 

Albie is leaving for college soon, and the family has already planned a summer “Grand Tour.” Connie wants to visit all of Europe’s greatest works of art with Albie before he leaves. They decide to take the trip despite the marital woes, and Douglas sees it as his last shot at winning back Connie’s affections (and as an opportunity to improve his shaky relationship with Albie). Needless to say, it’s a lot of pressure to put on a vacation.

Not surprisingly, the trip devolves quickly. Albie mouths off to some businessmen at their hotel’s breakfast buffet and things escalate. One of them lunges at Albie, presumably ready to punch him. Rather than sticking up for Albie, Douglas holds Albie back and apologizes to the businessmen, saying that he’s embarrassed by Albie’s behavior. Albie is hurt and humiliated. Connie is disappointed (“[I]t was the wrong thing to do, because in a fight you side with the people you love. That’s just how it is.”).

Albie decides to continue his European adventures without his parents. He leaves a note at the hotel, telling his parents not to contact him. He won’t answer his phone or texts or emails. Connie is devastated and decides to return to England. Douglas realizes the error of his ways and is determined to find Albie and make things right.

Rating: 3/5

The book is told in first person by Douglas. His retelling of the Grand Tour is interspersed with memories of the past (how he and Connie met, their marriage, the death of their first child, Albie’s youth). As Douglas recounts past stories and conversations, he begins to realize that, despite his best intentions, he has failed to express his love and concern for his family in the best way. Not everything is salvageable, but Douglas realizes that simple, straightforward, loving statements can go a long way toward making things better.

If this story sounds a little trite, that’s because it is. But it features Nicholls’ signature style—it is frequently witty (and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny) and occasionally genuinely touching—which helps save the book from being too off-the-deep-end cheesy/feely.

This is a good book for an older audience; I think it would especially appeal to/resonate with people in my parents’ generation (i.e., people who have experienced relationship struggles and the difficulties of moody, transitional teens).

The hype:

  • Longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize
  • An Amazon Best Book of the Month for November 2014
  • The #1 LibraryReads List selection for November 2014

Who should read it: If you read and liked Nicholls’ One Day (which was made into a not-great movie with Anne Hathaway), then you will likely like this, too.

 Want to read along with me? A review of this book is coming soon:

6 thoughts on “Us

  1. Hope you enjoy The Assassination… I loved them, but they seem to have had a fairly mixed reception. Look forward to your review! 🙂

    • I decided to read this one based, in part, on your review! I finished it last night and also LOVED it. I wonder (perhaps a bit egomaniacally) if the people who don’t like these stories just don’t get them. Mantel is clever, and she doesn’t spoon-feed her readers in this collection!

      • Oh, I’m so glad you enjoyed it then! I’m always scared when anyone reads something on my recommendation… 😉

        Yes, I think a lot of people had pigeon-holed her as only doing Wolf Hall type stuff so didn’t like the change in style. Plus over here lots of people thought the story about Margaret Thatcher was in pretty bad taste – I was dubious about it myself, to be honest, but the rest of the stories more than made up for it…

  2. Congrats on getting a spot on the journal! It seems like a big deal!

    In reference to the book, I was really disappointed with it. For me it definitely did not live up to the hype whatsoever. It was very much an average book. I think my biggest problem was that I could not sympathize with Douglas’s problems. Maybe when I am older I will appreciate more. As you mentioned, the humour is what kept me going.

    • Ha, thanks! That was many years ago, but the conversation with my dad struck me as very similar to many of the Douglas/Albie interactions!

      I agree that the book was just fine, not great. And certainly not Man Booker Prize material (I’m kind of shocked that it was longlisted, actually). Generally speaking, though, I like Nicholls’ writing. I enjoyed both Starter for Ten (published here as A Question of Attraction) and One Day . . . but those were more relatable to a younger reader, I think.

      • I know! I remember thinking, “Wow, Man Booker Prize must be brilliant” but it was NOT. I might have to give his other books a read, especially if you say that they were more relatable to a younger audience. Thanks!

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