There was much to admire about One Day, not least of all the brilliant one-liners about contemporary relationships, so I thought maybe Nicholls might have ironed out some of the faults of that novel and come up with something more comprehensively worthy of praise. However my overriding emotion while reading this novel was exasperation. How much you enjoy Us will be hugely dependent on how much sympathy you have for its narrator, Douglas Petersen. Douglas is an industrial biochemist (though he comes across more as a prim and proper civil servant from the 1950s) so veers towards the cliché of the emotionally retarded scientist (except his intellect is at best mediocre and only scientific in the most humdrum manner); his wife was once an artist – yin and yang in other words. Their marriage bumbles along until one night Connie tells him she wants to leave him. Her discontent exacerbated by Douglas’ hapless antagonistic relationship with his son. Nicholls does himself no favours with the suffocating limitations imposed on him by his emotionally retarded narrator – to my mind, Nicholls unnecessarily magnifies the emotional haplessness of Douglas to the point of caricature. Douglas’ expectations are more often than not as self-righteous as they are absurd. He expects reward from pretty much his every gesture as if daily life is a scratchcard. He is left flailing and stunned by his son’s inability to see his ridiculous exhortations. He humiliates his son and wife in public and then blunders into repeating the faux pas again and again. And this is where the exasperation kicks in – there’s so little character development on his part for so long that the narrative becomes stiflingly predictable. When he goes to Florence his overriding memory is of the human statues outside the Uffizi. That alone for me would be grounds for his wife divorcing him!
It’s a really well structured novel. The now and then are seamlessly and artfully dovetailed together and the narrative also has a good easy flow to it. But it’s a very safe novel, little more than fluffy romantic comedy. Aimed, one suspects, at pleasing women, like One Day. But I’m not sure it has any new insights to offer on married life. Good novelists find largesse in the small; when Nicholls writes about the small in this novel it kind of stays small. Yes, now and again an incident of marital conflict will arouse a small smile of recognition but it’s more Coronation Street than Anna Karenina.