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Novel set in Europe (a modern day Grand Tour)

22nd November 2014

Us by David Nicholls: novel set in Europe.

IMG_2892Longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, this book is a delight. Dad Douglas Petersen has meticulously planned a modern day Grand Tour of Europe for his little family, wife Connie and teenage son Albie. Prior to departure Connie voices her doubts about remaining committed to the relationship; but they nevertheless depart, perhaps to try and heal the rift or end the marriage on an upbeat note, no-one is quite sure and no-one is addressing the issue at hand….

The trip starts off reasonably well as they head for Paris as their first stop, a city where they experience ‘Familiarity, globalization, cheap travel” and where “mere weariness had diluted our sense of foreign-ness. The city was more familiar than we wanted it to be….“. Streets lined with the same shops as in any UK High Street. They take in all the usual sites which are wonderfully brought to life. It is here that Albie forms an attachment to Kat, the street musician who is toting her accordion around Europe.

Then it is soon off to Amsterdam, “the trendy dad of Europe” as it is described, with its laid back attitude to life, the Brown Cafés, and the freedom of travel by bike. Ironically, Douglas is really struggling with his role of Dad, and is anything but trendy. He is anxious to please, he is at times a critical parent to Albie, and espouses the unconscious motto of a ‘glass half empty’ partner to Connie – who herself is all spontaneity and artistry; yet his determination to make amends and adjustments to his behaviour is at times admirable. Perhaps it is a case of ‘Opposites Attract’ (but that is for another discussion elsewhere!). Some readers may find Douglas irritating, but his hapless need to ingratiate, yet hold the moral boundaries that he firmly espouses, is quite admirable.

The travel – which is fabulously and acutely observed, and will entertain and delight readers as they are whisked from one city to the next – is interspersed with the history of this little family unit. It is poignantly written from Douglas’s experience of family life, as he strives to be a good man, but his background has imbued him with traditional and restrictive values, he can be very black and white in his thinking, and this leads him to interchanges that reverberate and cause awful ructions. His attempts to redress the situation can often lead him into the deeper and unfathomable waters of the human condition, and he is left reeling…yet, he still endeavours to try his best. Connie, as a foil to his precise background as a scientist, is an artist who butterflies through her life and draws Albie into her world of creativity – again an anathema to Douglas who struggles with a chaotic home of glue, glitter and grunge, the acoutriments of childhood.

As a couple, Douglas and Connie are also struggling to deal with the loss of their first born, an infant daughter, which overshadows their lives and adds a sombre overtone to the, at times, wistful and humorous ponderings.

In Amsterdam a chance meeting with arms dealers (as you do) in the breakfast room of the hotel forms a turning point in this particular family holiday. Then it is off to Munich for a bit of beer and oompah music, and some more galleries in the shape of the Alte Pinakothek and further ponderings on art. Throughout, the author muses on the idiosyncracies of each city and country, choicely observed – in Germany, for example, they like ‘very thin pillows’ which will sound familiar to anyone who has visited the country. And he notes the general fashion in Europe for pharmacies, which will be a familiar sight to any of us who have travelled the length and breadth of the continent – “Pharmacies! What’s with all the pharmacies?…. How do they all survive? You’d think, from all the pharmacies, they’d be in a constant state of flu. We have phone shops, the French have pharmacies” (sound a familiar observation?).


The Night Watch
Photo: Rembrandtpainting.net

In Amsterdam they have viewed The Night Watch which is the 4th most famous painting in the world, apparently (so what are the top three, we wonder, perhaps The Sunflowers, Guernica, The Lilies… the Mona Lisa, of course? Which do you think are the top 3 most famous paintings in the world? We are giving away a copy of the book over on FACEBOOK in return for your top three painting suggestions). 

And in Munich things fall substantially apart but the tour continues to Verona (a 2 hours pit stop, taking in Juliet’s Window) and on to Venice. The trick in Venice, Connie has observed on a previous visit, is “to see St Mark’s once, then bounce off it to the outer edges. The trick is to be spontaneous, curious, get lost” (and you can imagine how that notion of spontaneity might have gone down with Douglas, the fastidious organiser). Nevertheless a great way to explore the city, you can only go so far before you hit a canal and have to dive back in to the calle, campi and canale

There are plenty more stops and adventures along the way, but to enjoy the full itinerary, you will need to read the book…. find out what happens to Douglas and Connie’s marriage. If you enjoy a good story, an insight into human relationships and great travel as part of the storyline, then you are in for a treat.

Very eye-catching and simple cover by the way!


Tina for the TripFiction Team

You can connect with the author via his website and over on Facebook

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  1. User: aditi3991

    Posted on: 24/11/2014 at 7:22 am

    Very articulate and highly enlightening review Tina! 🙂


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