David Nicholls knew One Day would be a tough act to follow. The 2009 tragic love story was not only an international best seller, it also spawned a Hollywood adaptation. It was so successful that Nicholls worried in a 2012 interview with The Independent that his follow-up might “disappoint” people.
Us is that follow-up and it hits U.S. shelves today. The novel, which centers on a marriage in trouble, has already received accolades and was even long-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, so Nicholls apparently didn’t have much to worry about. Yet Us is also another love story, of sorts—as the narrator and hero Douglas Petersen says, “Certainly love comes into it”—and it’s hard to pick the book up without reflecting, even briefly, on its predecessor.
Yet once I got into Us, I wasn’t reminded of One Day, but instead of a different best-seller, one that also zeroes in on marriage: Gone Girl. Or, at least, a happier, lighter, more well-adjusted version of Gone Girl. No, David Nicholls hasn’t waded into murder mystery territory. Remember that while Gillian Flynn’s 2012 psychological thriller – and its David Fincher-directed big-screen adaptation – deals with crime and deception as much as it does with relationships, it also takes an in-depth look at the state of marriage and what years together can do to a couple. On the very first page, when Nick Dunne contemplates what his wife, Amy, is thinking, he asks himself, “What have we done to each other?”
In a much more benign way, that is also the central question at the heart of Us. While Douglas Petersen is a middle-aged biochemist with sensible tastes, his long-time wife Connie is a spontaneous and vivacious artist-type—Douglas’s complete opposite. The two also have a moody teenage son, Albie, who adores Connie, annoys Douglas and is about to head off for college. The book opens with Connie’s announcement one night that, after years together, she’s thinking of leaving Douglas. He’s railroaded by the news, but agrees to go along with her and Albie on a “Grand Tour” of Europe—Douglas’s final chance to win back his wife’s love and save his marriage.
If that sounds like a huge feat, Douglas is here to make the reader understand that he’s done it before. Between chapters describing the “Grand Tour,” Douglas goes back in time, to “Before Connie,” to recount how the couple first met, at a dinner party his sister throws. He is not only instantly smitten, he also immediately realizes that in order to attract anyone as edgy and arty as Connie, he might need to rethink his ordered, sensible life.
“[My] transformation began even before our second date,” he explains. “I had for some time been living the wrong sort of life and my drab flat in Balham was a reflection of this. The bare magnolia walls, the flat-pack furniture, the dusty paper lightshades and 100-watt bulbs. A woman as cool as Connie Moore would not stand for this. It would all have to go.”
But it’s not just his flat that Douglas feels the need to tweak to impress his future-wife. He describes delving into art, theater, novels and music – all things he’d previously been uninterested in – in order to entice and connect with Connie. In short, he tries to become a different person. It’s seemingly an extensive overhaul and somewhat reminiscent of Amy Elliot Dunne’s famous “Cool Girl” rant, in which she rages about the myriad ways women transform themselves into exactly who they think men want them to be, twisting themselves in knots in the process.
“Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2,” Amy fumes when recalling her courtship with Nick. “Men actually think this girl exists.”
Of course, while Amy’s description of the hoops she – and all women, or so she believes – must jump through in order to land a guy is nothing short of bitter, Douglas’s account of the lengths he goes to impress Connie is heartfelt. Unlike Amy, he doesn’t express disgust that such a performance is believed; he’s relieved. Even years later, when their marriage starts to wear thin, Douglas doesn’t seem to be bothered by the efforts he made for love. “I was grateful,” he reflects. “My wife educated me.”
Eventually, however, Douglas, like Amy before him, realizes that an act is unsustainable and, over the years, his real buttoned-up self shines through. The tedium of work and commuting and parenting and everyday life sets in. That may be where the relationship becomes more honest, but it’s also more susceptible to disenchantment and deterioration.
Though in both tone and genre Us and Gone Girl are seriously light years apart, each novel makes a serious attempt to excavate a marriage from the initial flirty courtship to the downward spiral and back again. Just as Flynn’s psychological mine-field has moments of levity and sweetness, Us takes us into the darker corners of the Petersens’ life together.
Luckily for the marriage in Us, Nicholls’ characters are nowhere near as vicious as those in Gone Girl (though Connie’s choice to break her husband’s heart before insisting he tour Europe with her seems pointlessly cruel). That doesn’t necessarily mean that Douglas and Connie’s marriage contract ultimately fares better than Nick and Amy’s, though I won’t spoil either book here. But for all of their burdens and battles, Douglas and Connie have moments of real joy in their marriage and while it doesn’t always seem like a pleasure, reading about it sure is.