I bought this book in July this year, while on holiday in the Lake District, from the wonderful independent bookshop in Grasmere (Sam Read Booksellers – if you’re ever in that area, I highly recommend a visit!). I was keeping it for when I wanted something good to read but not too challenging. I finally picked it up to fill a gap between Am I Normal Yet? and All the Bright Places, both of which deal with some pretty intense themes. It was just the right book for that.
The first David Nicholls I read was One Day – before it was optioned for a film, during the time when the paperback was everywhere. There were a few months in British bookshops and public spaces when it was impossible to move without seeing a copy of it. One Day was among the books in my shift from reading Young Adult to Adult fiction comfortably – not that I don’t read YA anymore, but at that age I was getting happy with browsing the whole bookshop, not just the Teen shelves. From a good starting point with Nicholls, I read Starter for Ten – which, to this day, is one of the most cringe-filled books I’ve made it through. I enjoyed it, but have not re-read it simply because I can’t take the amount of embarrassment the narrator goes through. It’s too much for me. Similarly, I’ve only watched the film in parts, never sitting through the whole thing – and largely for the benefit of Benedict Cumberbatch being the perfect Patrick.
My experiences of reading Nicholls’ books have been varied. As much as I loved One Day then (my affection for it has worn with time) I was not a fan of Starter for Ten, so I just wasn’t sure what to expect from this. I’m pleased I gave it his writing another chance though, because I this is now probably my favourite of the three, as easy reading.
The novel is narrated by Douglas Timothy Petersen, a mid-fifties scientist, dad, husband. Very British, stiff upper lipped, who repeatedly brought to my mind old dogs and new tricks. He and his wife Connie plan to take their seventeen year old son Albie on a Grand Tour of Europe before he leaves home for University. Shortly before they leave, Connie informs him that she thinks she wants to separate. Cue a train journey to Paris, lots of awkward semi-arguing, and many, many flashbacks to give us concurrent stories of his relationship with his wife.
I really enjoyed how Nicholls layers the beginning of their relationship beneath this ending phase of it – giving it context, a lot more emotional resonance, and building on our sympathy for both of them.
For most of the book, I did not like Douglas Petersen much. His passion for science is admirable, but otherwise he is a jumble of solid logic and little heart. He discourages his son from pursuing his passion because it isn’t practical and has been making the same jokes for thirty years. My hope in continuing beyond the first fifty pages was that by the end of the book I would like him more, which was true. It came about in a way I believed, but equally hadn’t been expecting. I won’t go into any further detail because spoilers would have made this book a lot less enjoyable – the pace and tone were gentle and confidently executed, which made it a nice relaxing read for me.
I also think though that nothing about this book sounds that spectacular out of context – Douglas is a thoroughly ordinary man, his wife is quite an ordinary woman, and his son is quite an ordinary teenager. But that’s actually what I came out of the book appreciating – the people were quite ordinary, the circumstances less so, but the storytelling still made it feel important and worthy. Any further plot detail does not seem (to me) particularly inspiring out of the book it sits within.
My lasting impression about this book is not strong, but simply of niceness. It is a good story, well written, well plotted, with plenty of unexpected turns, plenty to relate to and a fair bit to laugh at as well. Personally I was more interested in Connie than Douglas – but I understand that is, in part, why we don’t get her perspective on things. Douglas is very much aware that his wife is more interesting than he is, and it forms a strong part of his characterisation and the plot.
It’s worth mentioning (though perhaps a mundane accolade!) that the chapters are also quite short – if you’re looking for something you can dip in and out of without committing to reading massive chunks at a time. I know a few people who struggle to find time to read in extended spans.
I would certainly recommend this to anyone looking for a family-centred saga, and for a story about couples in later life as well as their twenties. If you want to tour Europe from your sofa, this is a great adventure, and anyone with an interest in art and the art museums of the continent will certainly find something to enjoy.