Clark Griswold demonstrated the perils of family trips more than 30 years ago, but apparently Douglas Petersen never saw one of National Lampoon’s Vacation movies.
The hapless 54-year-old Londoner at the center of David Nicholls’ new novel thinks a European tour is the perfect strategy to win back his wife, Connie (”Douglas, I think our marriage has run its course. I think I want to leave you”), and his sullen, distant, college-bound son, Albie (”We’re not friends. You’re my father”). Problem is, Douglas has the emotional touch of an sledgehammer—his idea of father-son bonding is showing the boy the hotel room where he was conceived. Ick.
Us, which follows the family through art galleries, seedy inns, and sorry restaurants, is laced with flashbacks of Douglas and Connie’s unlikely three-decade marriage. She is a free-spirited former artist; he’s a biochemist. She is a human being; the jury is still out on him. As the clan lopes from France to the Low Countries to Germany, Nicholls captures the discomfort and claustrophobia of forced fun all too well. The results are laughable and disastrous.
Unlike Douglas, Nicholls is a master of nuanced relationships. He’s also a pro at delivering a tight, clever structural narrative, as he proved in his terrific previous novel One Day, which was an Entertainment Weekly best book of 2010. (It was then adapted into an Anne Hathaway movie, which should have been on EW’s worst-film list in 2011.)
A footnote: Us is one of two compelling new books with a pronoun for a title—the other, You, by Caroline Kepnes (a former EW staffer), is a more literal take on the pain people can cause each other. Great novels, the both of them—just don’t read them with your loved ones. A-