Review: Us, by David Nicholls

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.

Us - David NichollsActually, 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

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JFK’s Right Hand Man

I’ve just finished reading Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, the memoir of Ted Sorensen, one of JFK’s closest advisors. It’s a superb book, beautifully written offering an insight into the mind of a truly brilliant man who Kennedy described as his “intellectual blood bank”. Here are a few thoughts on Sorensen, JFK, and a quite superb political autobiography.

On the morning of Friday 20th January 1961, after a night of heavy snowfall and in the shadow of a close-run election, John F Kennedy stepped on to the inaugural platform and spoke words that both defined and inspired a generation. “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” This was more than rhetoric. His words ushered in a new era of optimism and a new generation of political awareness. Kennedy’s inaugural address is perhaps the most famous, most replayed, most quoted piece of political rhetoric from the past 60 years. Reading it afresh today, more than half a century later, it hasn’t lost an ounce of its impact.

JFK’s inaugural address might be the closest thing you’ll find to political poetry. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” is the best known line but the speech includes other gems such as “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate” and “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich”. These words, although spoken by JFK on that cold January morning, almost certainly originated from the pen of Ted Sorensen.

Counselor CoverAlthough Ted Sorensen is often credited as JFK’s “speechwriter”, he was a lot more than that. Finding the appropriate description of Sorensen’s role in Kennedy’s life is difficult, such was the closeness of the two. His job title in the White House was the rather generic “Special Counsel to the President” which can mean anything and everything. Kennedy’s brother Bobby, who served as JFK’s Attorney General, says simply: “If it was difficult, Ted Sorensen was brought in”, while the New York Times obituary of his life describes Sorensen as JFK’s “political strategist and a trusted adviser on everything from election tactics to foreign policy”.

Counselor is the story of Sorensen’s life rather than JFK’s presidency, although the years spent campaigning for and then serving in the White House certainly dominate the pages. The book breezes through Sorensen’s early life providing some detail about his somewhat sheltered upbringing in Nebraska, including earning his bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska, and then graduating first in his class at law school. By the time he first made the journey to Washington in 1951, at the age of 23, Sorensen says of himself: “I had never drunk a cup of coffee, set foot in a bar, written a check, or owned a car.” Less than 10 years later he was, the Wall Street Journal notes, “the third most powerful man in the American government.”

Sorensen and JFK first met in 1953 when, eighteen months after making the journey to Washington DC from his home town of Lincoln Nebraska, Sorensen was hired as a researcher by the newly elected senator from Massachusetts.

Sorensen pic

Ted Sorensen

Although the book is a little light on Sorensen’s early life, it provides more detail about his post-Washington years in which he spent four decades as a successful international lawyer for New York firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. This work took him all over the world and included encounters with an eclectic cast of charismatic and inspiring world leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, Charles de Gaulle, former President of the DRC, Mobutu Sese Seko,  Egypt’s former President Anwar Sadat (whom Sorensen describes as the “most intriguing” person he’s ever met), and Israel’s former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (whom he described as the “most visionary”.)

Counselor also documents Sorensen’s own experience as a political candidate in 1970 when he ran as a democrat in the New York Senate seat previously held by Robert Kennedy. But Sorensen admits this was “a mistake”, describing how he believed (naively, it turns out) that by seeking public office he could simply continue the JFK legacy. “Frankly, it was an act of hubris on my part”, concedes Sorensen.

The pages of Counselor are soaked with loyalty and admiration towards JFK (it’s even been described as a “love story” by one reviewer). Sorensen’s loyalty remained undiminished long after JFK’s presidency was brought to a tragically premature end in Texas in 1963. In one candid section towards the end of the book Sorensen asserts that none of the nine people who have held the office of the Presidency since 1963 come close to his former boss.

In another example of both loyalty to JFK and ambivalence to those who followed, Sorensen admits for the rest of his life whenever he referred to “The President” in writing, in conversation, or otherwise, there was only one person he meant.

Ever since JFK delivered his inaugural address in 1961, questions over its true authorship have been raised. It has been suggested on more than one occasion that Sorensen is the source and inspiration behind all of Kennedy’s finest rhetoric. Sorensen addresses those questions head-on in Counselor and, perhaps unsurprisingly, remains loyal to his former boss referring to the speech “a collaboration” and even insisting Kennedy was the “true author”.

Sorensen remained active and intellectually alert into old age although his latter years were dominated by health issues following a massive stroke in 2001 that took away most of his sight – and could have been worse. Writing Counselor seems to have been a cathartic exercise for Sorensen who admits that it helped keep him alive for the six years it took to write following the stroke (he died two years after publication). It seems to have also brought closure: in the final pages of the book, Sorensen says that he believes the writing of the book signifies the conclusion of his service to JFK.

Ted Sorensen has been described as the speechwriter’s patron saint. This is an appropriate epithet. It’s certainly true that for aspiring writers, Sorensen’s name towers above others. But even a cursory look at his professional life shows that he was far more than a speechwriter. Counselor is a fine account of his distinguished life. Moreover, it offers an authoritative behind-the-scenes assessment of a presidency that electrified the nation. I have no doubt that Counselor will stand through the ages as one of the definitive accounts of JFK’s presidency, written by someone who lived and breathed every minute.

One of the endorsements on the back cover is from Barack Obama who states that “Sorensen has written a book that will be cherished for generations.” I happen to think he’s right. I hope he is.

Sorensen’s life of service, idealism, and loyalty provides a shining example for aspiring politicians and political advisors. I can’t help thinking that US politics – characterised as it is by gridlock, partisanship, and short-sightedness – would be a far better place if there were a few more Ted Sorensens around today.