I finished David Nicholls' Us this morning and must say that I really enjoyed it. The story is about an English, middle-aged couple, Douglas and Connie, who are on the brink of both separation and an empty nest. The novel starts off with Connie waking Douglas up in the early morning and telling him she thinks she wants to leave him, despite the family's preparations to embark on a massive European tour in order to commemorate their only son's impending adulthood. The couple decides to go anyway, and the book chronicles their present and their past, and what bridges the two.
It's one of those books that makes you reflect quite a bit, on many different levels. Here are a few of the lasting impressions Us had on me:
Raising a Teenage Son
There are over a hundred teenagers in my life, nearly half male. I've generally found the guys easier to deal with than the girls at this age, but Albie, Connie and Douglas' son, is quite a handful. But with reason; he feels a great deal of pressure from his successful, scientific father and a constant need to fill the shoes of his older sister, who died a day after she was born (it's hard to be a failure when you never have the opportunity to, well, fail). Nonetheless, Albie and his relationship with his parents made me cognizant of my own parenting style. I do know that I will never take Sawyer to Amsterdam.
Your Marriage Shouldn't Revolve Around Your Child
This is a tough one for a lot of couples, I think. Connie fears being alone with Douglas when Albie leaves for school, seeing that they've grown apart and don't share many interests anymore. I've thought about this many times before, both in the context of marriage and individuality; eventually your child (or children) will leave your for their own life and you still need to live a fulfilling existence despite their absence. It's important to still do with things with your spouse and to not include your kid in every conversation, on every outing, and every vacation. It's admittedly really hard when they're little, and I'm no expert, but a little bit of effort can go a long way.
I've had cabin fever for awhile, since before Sawyer I was fortunate enough to go on a trip every year or so. In Us the characters start their "Grand Tour," which includes places such as Paris and Amsterdam. Once the family separates they visit various cities in Italy and Spain, as well. I love hotels and airports and itineraries. Staying in one place gets so boring... We have a few little excursions tentatively planned for this year, so that's enough to appease me... for now. Not to get too far off topic, but I've decided that once Sawyer is a bit older I'm going on a large vacation every other year, whether with family, friends, or alone (possible destinations: Vancouver, Fiji, Switzerland, Puerto Rico, Washington DC, Maine, or, the most far-fetched, Patagonia in Chile).
A huge part of their "Grand Tour" was exposing themselves to classical European experiences, many of which were housed in museums. When I was in Italy many years ago we went to several in each city and while some became a little boring, I still relish the feel of the culture and academia. I've been to most of the big ones here in Southern California, but reading Us made me want to make the rotation again.
The Past's Influence
I loved the narrative structure of the text and can't say that I had a preference to the past or present sections, since both were equally as interesting. It was fascinating to see the integration of the two and the product of the family's cumulative experiences. It's a bit unsettling how small familial transgressions accumulate and eventually the damage seems unsurmountable. It's important as a parent and spouse to simply be nice; it's easy to snap and act in the moment, but people remember what you say.
Needless to say, I thought this book was excellent. It was like taking a trip through Europe with a dysfunctional family that you just can't help but to grow to love.