Serendipity again: another perfect complement to my last posting. Again, the author tells us this is a “love story.” Again, there’s a character with a scientific mind. That’s where the similarities end! This time, I was looking for something not so intellectually taxing, but nonetheless heartfelt. David Nicholls’ writing style is immediately engaging, blending prose that is laugh-out-loud-funny, poignant, and wise.
Is Love Enough? (London/suburb and a “Grand Tour” of Europe covering Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Venice, Verona, Florence, Rome, Naples, Barcelona, Siena; present day/twenty-odd years of seamless flashbacks): Some love stories and romantic films you never forget. Four come to mind: An Affair to Remember, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, and One Day, based on David Nicholls’ 2009 sensational hit novel. Penning another romance after One Day is a hard act to follow. Us is British film actor/novelist’s five-year effort to do so. You will not be disappointed!
The writing flows effortlessly. The story is told with tremendous heart. You will find yourself rooting for Douglas Timothy Petersen – one of three characters meant by “us.” Douglas may have said that he “loved my wife to a degree that I found impossible to express, and so I rarely did,” yet he expresses himself to us with his-heart-on-his sleeves.
Not so for #2 in “us:” Connie Moore, Douglas’ painter turned arts administrator wife of twenty-some years. It’s not that she isn’t well-realized; it’s that we want to knock some sense into her middle-aged hippie, artsy, “live-in-the-moment” head for the anguish she is putting this endearing man through. The realists among us side with Douglas – “the trouble with living in the moment is that moment passes” – because he adores her to a “ridiculous degree.” He’s a charming list-maker, like his wistful listing of “seven things about her” – her fifties movie star looks, her style, the way she listens, her voice, the “grace and life in her.” Still love-struck at 54, he divides his life into “B.C and A.C” – “Before Connie and After Connie:”
Before Connie: Douglas was a passionate biochemist whose only love was “fundamental science” like studying that infamous drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly), which is to say that he experienced life through “reinforced glass.” He may have been lonely at times (wasn’t everyone?), living in his comfort zone (wasn’t that the point? To be comfortable), and not very worldly when it came to travel (his father was xenophobic), or Connie’s enriching world of “art, film, fiction, music; she seemed to have seen and read and listened to pretty much everything.” Everything he was not. But then, “who wants to fall in love with their reflection?”
After Connie: No matter what our soulful narrator does, he can’t win with #2 or #3, his downcast teenage son. Now head of R & D of a profit-making corporation, he’s shunned for making money. (He can’t figure out what his son is so against: “Warmth? Comfort?”) Beneath that comedic coping voice, lies sadness. Naturally, one thing he cannot joke about is the “blue” period, a heart-wrenching time of unbearable grief when the couple’s newborn daughter died. Douglas’ voice is so human and eloquent in expressing grief: “I’ve never sleepwalked … but we sat and stood, walked and ate without really being alive.” The painful prose he uses – “torn away” – makes us wince, the imagery of your flesh being ripped off, and yet he manages to stay a “capable butler” tending to Connie’s every need. Besides rescuing his marriage, Douglas is desperately seeking to kindle a connection with his alienated son, a chronically strained relationship akin to an “awkward chat show.” We feel how badly he wants to be his “idol.” But his no-nonsense/wanting-the-very-best for his child parenting style bumps up against Connie’s laissez-faire one. How could he possibly win?
Albert Samuel Petersen, Albie, nicknamed “Egg” – #3 in the triad: Seventeen-year old Albie is a tough nut to crack. “He sometimes regards me with a pure and concentrated disdain, filling me with so much sadness and regret that I can barely speak.” At first, you assume he’s your typical, rebellious, moody teenager. But as the story evolves – told to us in 180 numbered, cleverly named short chapters that weave back and forth in time smoothly – Albie seems far more troubled, engaging in disturbing behaviors (like dressing up as a Nazi at a costume party). Before he heads off to college, Connie dreamed up a grand idea, a “Grand Tour” of Europe. She wants to set Albie off “like in the eighteenth century.” Keep in mind this was Connie’s plan, not Douglas’.
Us opens with Connie informing Douglas in the middle of the disorienting night that when Albie leaves, she’s likely to leave too. Their marriage, she says, has “run its course.” Douglas cannot accept such a premise, so he proposes they continue their grandiose travel plans hoping a trip of a lifetime can turn things around. The scientist in him meticulously plans the itinerary, only to be poked fun of at every turn. Making sure they hit some of the greatest art museums in the world, intending to please artist Connie and awaken his disappointing, technologically-glued son, his best intentions run up against Albie’s only artistic interest: photography.
The globe-trotting reminded me of that hilarious movie, “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium.” But even with the best of travel plans, things don’t go as planned.
Douglas’ efforts to make things right are herculean. The more hysterical and pathetic the mishaps, the more Douglas endears us. We want to believe like he does that “surely, surely you have to succeed, if you give everything you have.” And he does! Passages and passages of zany adventures.
Douglas’ tender and wise reflections should be savored. For instance, when he cogitates at what point the light and passion went out in his marriage: “The edges of unhappiness are usually a little more blurred and graded than those of joy.” Or, torments himself as to what he did wrong as a father:
“Perhaps it’s a delusion for each generation to think that they know better than their parents. If this were true, then parental wisdom would increase with time like the processing power of computer chips, refining over generations, and we’d now be living in some utopia of openness and understanding.”
This posting began by mentioning my last one (see The Goddess of Small Victories). Fascinating the differences between two wives, two husbands, in these two novels. Both women were artists with a zest for life, be it dancing or painting. The dancer gave up her life; the painter is not willing to. The logician is revered for his genius; the doctor of biochemistry denies he’s one. Instead, he repeatedly stresses that talent must be nurtured through discipline, diligence, hard work (qualities he wants his son to have). The genius petrified of making mistakes became paralyzed to act and was called a “madman”; the biochemist is willing to jump out of his comfort zone to a ridiculous degree into temporary madness, never losing sight of what matters most.
Douglas Timothy Petersen may not be Connie’s or Albie’s idol. But he’s ours.