And to be fair the book does not disappoint on that score. Us is essentially a tale of mid-life angst, the story of a middle class Liberal wracked with the usual insecurities and guilt so peculiar to that class.
Douglas Petersen is a fifty-four year old scientist married to a wife who is beautiful (of course), bohemian and just a wee bit bored. Doug you see is sensible whereas his wife is a free spirit, who for whatever reasons once upon a time decided to marry her antithesis. Although Nicholls attempts, via flashbacks, to square this rather awkward circle, the marriage of staid Doug and wild Connie never does ring completely true.
Whatever did she see in him? Well, Doug, like his scrawny, hip son Albie, is also irresistible to women. The ladies just can’t help throwing themselves at both father and son. It must be the jeans. Cliché? Yes. But hey it’s only fiction. One day in the future just for a change, the central characters of a novel will not be dripping with sexual magnetism. Until that time …
Anyway, after nearly 25 years, and much to Doug’s horror, Connie has had enough and declares her intention to end their marriage. First the couple need to go on a pre-booked grand tour of Europe with their sulky teenage son, a holiday that Doug now hopes might help save his ailing marriage.
The first few chapters fly by. Nicholls has a gift for delineating just the right detail be they from Renaissance masterpieces, the Grand Canal or grotty Amsterdam hotel rooms. If you can put aside the rather contrived plotting – would an uber cool sexually precocious teenager really go abroad with mum and dad? – it’s a rather enjoyable romp interspersed as it is with flashbacks to the couple’s early days.
When he’s not agonising over his schedule, eternal worrier Doug is trying to make sense of where it has all gone wrong in his relations with spouse and offspring. There’s a good deal of soul searching much of it funny and some of it unbearably true, with the result that despite his tendency towards pedantry, Doug comes across as a genuinely sympathetic character.
Decisions by wife and son to bail out and leave Doug alone in Europe come as no surprise which is more than can be said of episodes involving beautiful (what else?) Danish divorcees, internment in Italian gaols, liaisons with red light women and finally, heart attacks in the Spanish sun.
The plot, which sees Doug chasing his errant son across the continent does however become less believable the longer it goes on. Thankfully the novel is always rescued from sliding into banality by the thoughts and feelings of the admittedly rather charming, introspective, innocent abroad Doug.
So will our hero win his way back into the affections of the women he adores? That would be telling. In Us, David Nicholls has created a domestic drama played out against a backdrop of European culture in which any one of us could be the central characters. Yes it can become a little mawkish at times – after all it was on the Man Booker long-list – and yes it does occasionally suffer from cliché, but there’s more than enough in the way of human fallibility to compensate.
He might have all the charisma of a chess-playing accountant whose favourite telly programme is Antiques Roadshow, but there’s never a dull moment on Doug Petersen’s Grand Tour.