I had no intention of reading this book. Fourteen days ago I’d never heard of it – or the author. My planned holiday reading consisted of Great Speeches of the 20th Century, a John Grisham, and a book about The Book. But on my first night on holiday I noticed its bright red cover on the bookshelf and casually picked it up to read the first few pages. It grabbed me immediately.
Actually, I was persuaded before I got to page one. The quotes from newspaper critics on the front/back cover were extraordinary: ‘I honestly can’t imagine loving a novel much more’ The Sunday Times; ‘A sad, funny, soulful joy’ Observer; ‘I was having to ration myself for fear of coming to the end too soon’ Daily Mail. With recommendations like that, I dived in…
The story is about Douglas Petersen, a middle-aged scientist struggling to cling on to his wife of nearly 25 years, the beautiful Connie, an artist, and his teenage son, Albie, a sulky, spoiled teenager. After Connie informs Douglas that she wants a divorce, Douglas convinces himself that the upcoming summer family holiday – a cultural tour of European cities that he has researched and planned meticulously – is his opportunity to win them both back.
The story is split between the present day as the Petersen family move across Europe – starting in London, then on to Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Venice, Florence, Siena, Madrid and finally Barcelona – and various key moments from Douglas and Connie’s life over the past 25 years (how they met, fell in love, got married etc.).
Douglas is naive, optimistic, dull, predictable, old-fashioned – all the things that Connie is not. She is beautiful, artistic, free-spirited, with a wild side and a colourful history. I wanted to love Douglas – and at various points through the book I did. He’s charming, funny, very warm, affectionate and he loves Connie. But as the story continues, it becomes apparent that Douglas is one of life’s losers. Socially awkward, uncomfortable, an unnatural father, a difficult husband and particularly ill-suited to Connie, which becomes increasingly obvious as the story progresses.
This presents a dilemma for the reader: should we be rooting for love to win the day and for Connie to stay with Douglas, or should we accept that they were not well-matched in the first place and that an amicable separation is the right course…?
At different points in the story I found myself wanting different outcomes. In roughly the first third of the book I desperately wanted Douglas to succeed but somewhere around halfway through I found myself thinking, ‘maybe they’re not right for each other after all…maybe they should separate’ which felt a bit odd.
On the face of it, a novel told by a man trying to resuscitate his failing marriage doesn’t sound like a page turner…but it really is. The tour through Europe provides plenty of twists and turns to keep the pages turning. But what keeps this book really interesting is the wonderfully understated, perfectly timed wit that laces each and every page. The humour is subtle, clever often very dry, and written perfectly.
Despite the humour and the wonderfully described European cities, the undercurrent to the whole book is the question of whether Douglas and Connie will stay together; will the ‘Grand Tour’ be enough to convince Connie to stay? Will Douglass win back the love of his life and redeem himself in the eyes of his son?
Without giving away the ending, I will say that I was left slightly disappointed. Not necessarily with the outcome of the story but, surprisingly, with the writing itself. After 416 pages of exquisite writing, the final 30 pages seemed rushed and lacking in detail, as if the author had a word limit he was working towards which arrived too soon.
Don’t get me wrong, the book is superb – including the final third in which Connie heads back to London leaving Douglas alone to navigate various European cities. But when I finally put it down (on the final night of my holiday) it was with some disappointment that the final few pages hadn’t been a little more nuanced and drawn-out. I wanted more (perhaps that’s a good thing?). But I guess this is a minor niggle after what was an incredibly enjoyable read.
I enjoyed this book immensely and would recommend it highly. I’m not a regular reader of fiction (see my planned reading list above!) but I’m very pleased to have stumbled across this one. I think I’ll take a look at Nicholls’ other books…