Us, David Nichols, author; David Haig, narrator
Be prepared to raise an eyebrow, smile and even laugh out loud as this story unfolds. Us is a charming and tender tale about the mating game and all that it involves as it evolves from the courtship to the marriage, to the raising of a family and beyond, complete with all of the attempts to attain a harmonious family life complete with the pitfalls that are faced in that endeavor. The burden of providing for a family often necessitates some happy and some unhappy choices to accommodate changing needs. Compromises often have to be made in the face of some stubborn adherences to selfish desires. Successful parenting is a work in progress and is often taxed by the disagreements between parents. Marriages are also works in progress and they are taxed by boredom and infidelity.
What would you do if your spouse suddenly decided that after more than two decades of marriage, she/he wanted to separate? Would you try to salvage the relationship or accept the judgment? Would you be demoralized, devastated or acquiescent? What would you do if you had a child with whom you were unable to communicate, a child who shut you out of his life? Would you abandon that child or attempt to reconcile. This was the dilemma that faced Douglas Petersen, 54 years old, just prior to a month long vacation, a European tour that he had planned for the family, very meticulously; it was the tour that was originally intended to reunite him with his son, and now, was meant, he hoped, to reunite him with his wife. After spending about 2 1/2 decades learning to live with each other, his wife had announced that she was not sure she could continue to live with him after their son went off to school. The empty nest was a hole she could not bear to contemplate and really felt that although she loved Douglas, she believed that their marriage had run its natural course and should dissolve. Essentially, as a couple, they had no future; they had outlived their usefulness, according to Connie.
So “Us” is the story of Douglas and Connie, two diametrically opposed characters; one is a scientist who studies fruit flies and this oddly fascinates his wife, and the other is an artist who paints pictures which her husband professes to like, but does not really understand. One is completely type “a”, up-tight and obsessed with rules, while the other is free as a bird, accepting all kinds of outrageous behavior. When they decided to marry, I thought that one of them must surely become subservient to the other, in order to cohabit peacefully, and soon, after their son Albie/Egg, was born, they both did have to learn to compromise even more.
As the marriage proceeds, Connie proves herself to be the more peaceful, the most forgiving, and the loosest in her expectations, but often, she is also the instigator, encouraging her son’s greater devotion to herself by openly disagreeing with Douglas’s expectations for his son. Douglas, socially inept, surprises himself, often, with his sense of humor and capabilities, but he is unable to show affection easily in the way that is wife is able, and she, therefore, manages to deal more effectively with the angst of her teenage son and his defiant behavior.
Their lives are taken apart, explored and put back together again by this very skillful author, with humor and wit that softens the tension and makes for a delightfully, enlightening read about relationships between spouses, between parents and children, and between strangers. Connie and Douglas come from divergent backgrounds and bring that history with them to their marriage, a blending of which creates a very confused Albie. Albie generally feels that while his father thinks little of him and is someone he simply cannot please and has given up trying; his mother offers him the sympathy, affection and understanding he craves.
Connie seems to be easy going, but possibly selfish and immature. She demands little in the way of decorum from her son while she accepts his teenage expression of independence, his experimentation with drugs, sex and a need to be solitary, as normal. She abets his behavior, by disregarding it and so does Doug, who while disliking his behavior and criticizing it, still funds it. At seventeen years old, Albie is immature, spoiled and willful, often deliberately rude and cruel to his dad, while Connie looks on, almost encouraging his behavior and ridiculing Doug’s. I was not in favor of their family dynamic, but I recognized the signs of warring hormones in Albie.
As the European tour proceeds, the landscape, art exhibits and museums are brought to life, but the Petersens can’t escape the tension inherent in their family dynamic, especially when Albie brings home a stray, a young woman accordion player, Kat, who has pretty much left her own home and run away. She is completely outspoken, without reservation, and she lives off others without shame while flaunting the rules of society. Connie likes her; Douglas does not. In the end, one lesson learned is that you must not judge a book by its cover, often there is a lot more between the pages of that person. When the disillusionment mounts, Albie takes off into the sunset, still expecting his parents to foot the bill, and as they twist and turn trying to find him, each accepting his disappearance in their own way, the reader is right there with them, worrying and fearing for his safety, wondering if he will ever return home.
The dynamics of their marriage and family life, plus the habits from their past that they bring with them and with which they infect their son, are carefully dissected with great detail. The dry, funny humor of the British, even when dealing with trauma and life threatening danger, prevents the story from becoming too bogged down with issues; each sardonic remark eases the tension allowing the readers and the internal narrator, Douglas, to understand and laugh at themselves and their own behavior.
In the end, one has to wonder, is this story an argument for or against a marriage of opposites? Can compromise and devotion save the day? As it examines different relationships and reactions between adults, between teens, and also between adults and teens, even among strangers who meet serendipitously, the reader will notice how the characters mature according to their experiences, in many different ways. Different personalities, with their likes and dislikes, learn how to accommodate each other or, they do not!
The ending is somewhat hopeful, but it is not a fairy tale ending, in the least. It is realistic and pragmatic as all of the characters do a bit of growing up, a bit of maturing and learn to see their own true images in a mirror, eventually coming to terms with who they really are.
Connie was my least favorite character as she seemed to be playing both ends against the middle in most situations. Albie, also known as Egg, was next since he seemed to be unappreciative of all that his parents provided for him, always expecting more, expecting to do as he pleased without giving anything back in return. Douglas was recalcitrant and hard-nosed, set in his ways and unable to relax. He meant well, but could not think outside the box, most of the time. He was always planning and organizing and was the most obvious and easy to predict. In each character, the readers will se a bit of themselves, and they will laugh as the self-deprecating main character introduces them to the exigencies of his life and the demands of his relationships while also exploring the hole that is left in a family unit when a child leaves the home, a child who has been the center of attraction for his entire life, a child that leaves an emptiness behind that he used to fill, an abyss that may be too deep and wide for one spouse to contemplate accepting and crossing to reach the other.