Study This: Us

I’ve written about David Nicholls before.* If you’ve been around here long, you’ll know I truly loved—loved—One Day, but the fact is, I’ve read all his novels, in order, and I’ve enjoyed them all. In brief, having just reviewed those old articles, here’s what I said:

• felt real; 1980s; had something to say about humanity; satisfying ending
• hilarious; 1980s; profound; moments so painful and real they made me cringe
• funny and so true it makes you squirm; ending is shocking and perfect

Do you see? I notice there’s a theme that I’ll call human truth: the books felt so real that I cringed and squirmed and (not admitted in any of these posts) cried over characters with whom I connected deeply.

I felt the same way about Us. Though the action happens mostly in the present, it’s a story that had its genesis in the 1980s, and Nicholls visits those early years. (That said, “Us reflects the more mature concerns of middle age, parenthood, and finding a way to knit together the damage the march of time does to a romantic relationship,” the Telegraph tells us.)

Here’s the Guardian’s synopsis:

Us, for which readers and booksellers have waited with growing impatience in the five years since One Day, puts another couple to the test. One night, Douglas Petersen, a 54-year-old industrial biochemist, is woken by his art gallerist wife of almost a quarter of a century, Connie, and informed that she thinks their marriage may be over. This is bad news for Douglas – not only because he still loves Connie madly, but because they have recently booked an expensive grand tour of Europe as a final family holiday before Albie, their 18-year-old son, goes to college.

Luckily, continuing the way in which Nicholls’ characters often have one eye on psychological plausibility and the other on narrative possibility, Connie agrees that the trip will go ahead anyway, with an announcement of her decision on divorce delivered … when they get back. Inevitably, Doug, in the manner of an electioneering politician announcing that voters have four weeks to save the NHS, treats the holiday as a campaign to sway his wife’s mind.

But there’s so much more. :) Nicholls is a keen observer of humanity. He’s also a skilled writer of screenplays (which has taught him plenty about keeping a story moving forward) as well as novels (Us was longlisted for the Man Booker in 2014). When you read Us, take note:

• Watch what he does with “chapter” titles (some chapters are only one paragraph long). Remember that Douglas is a self-described maker of lists.
• Observe how he treats the passage of time, moving gracefully backward and forward (and note that you’re never, ever confused).
• Look at the last page, the last chapter title, and see how he offers the denouement (without writing a single word!).
• Pay special attention to the way the narrator, Douglas, synopsizes his own story two completely different ways (in “chapter” 173). It’s too long to transcribe but you writers will see plot, subplot, and another story you hadn’t even imaged.

And there’s something else. I’ve been struggling to write an article for this blog that discusses the admonition to authors to write what you know (if I ever manage to finish it, you’ll be the first to know). The writer David Nicholls is writing what he knows; he even tells us so in this 2006 article he wrote for the Guardian:

[F]ive years ago, searching for a subject I could write about with some passion, I started to think back to that time, trying to summon up what had made the experience so intense, simultaneously romantic and mortifying. The result was a comic novel, Starter For Ten … I should confess now that both book and film are a fairly accurate account of my feelings and behaviour at that time.

It’s not autobiography, though, that makes Nicholls’s books such good examples of WWYK. It’s that a reader instinctively knows, just knows they are—as I noted above—real, with moments so painful and true they make you cringe. This is something every writer should aspire to.

* On British Books; In Case You Wondered: One Day, and Quick! Quick! Before the Movie Comes Out.


Tweet: My Study This series continues with David Nicholls’s “Us.”
Tweet: The books felt so real that I cringed & squirmed & cried over characters I loved.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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  1. By Number 18 on 28 December, 2015 at 2:57 pm

    […] A. Parker / Frederick / MEM Jandy Nelson / I’ll Give You the Sun / YA David Nicholls / Us / LF Ann Patchett / Truth and Beauty / MEM Rajdeep Paulus / Swimming Through Clouds / YA Louise […]