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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Marriage, Illegitimacy, and Social Norms

Last week I had the privilege of chairing a discussion as part of the annual Charles Street Symposium. The discussion was based on three essays, which considered the question, Why Do Societies Prosper? David Ruffley MP acted as the discussant for the session.

The first essay was titled More on the What and Less of the Why, by Bernardo Fazendeiro1. Bernardo argues that we are asking the wrong question and before considering why societies prosper we must first consider what we mean when we talk about prosperity. He concludes by stating that “taking a step back is more necessary than ever, so that we can deliberate on versions of the good, whatever that may be…”

The second essay titled The Ethics of Disutility was by Mats Ekman2. Mats’ considers whether it is morally right to force a person to maximise his/her own utility, ultimately concluding that it would be wrong to do so, arguing that “right” and “good” are separate qualities.

The third (and most provocative) essay titled Social Norms, Illegitimacy, and Liberty was by Carissa Mulder3. Carissa argues that “America is suffering from an illegitimacy crisis.” Drawing on evidence that compares the life outcomes of children from married families versus children from unmarried families, the essay argues that people from higher socio-economic groups are more likely to marry before having children compared to those from lower socio-economic groups due to the presence of social norms/expectations, which are absent among the lower class (note: the essay uses US data and focuses solely on the US).

Social norms can only exist if there are consequences for violating them” argues Carissa. “Conforming to these behaviours results in societal approval. On the other hand, people must experience negative consequences for violating these norms if they are to be effective.

In an issue as complex as this, it is far easier to diagnose the problem than it is to prescribe the right solution – a point that came through clearly in the subsequent discussion. The essay offers some suggestions (with examples) but struggles to reach a practical path for progress, partly due to the complexity of the problem and partly due to the limited space available (the maximum word count for essays was 1500 words). The following paragraph offers some broad-brush suggestions:

Elites should preach what they practise: present the picture of a married couple raising their biological children as the paradigmatic example of the good life; be explicit about why fathers are important; emphasise the benefits to children in terms of staying in school, avoiding abuse, avoiding drugs, and avoiding involvement with the justice system. People who are married and those delaying childbearing until marriage should be frank about why they are doing so. This should be done in a sensitive manner. But sheepishly muttering the truth, rather than explaining it in a straightforward manner, doesn’t make it any less true. It just means that those who most need a clear plan of life to follow will not understand it.

It may be tempting to see this essay – that essentially advocates marriage as a prerequisite for having children – as a classic right-of-centre, pro-marriage argument the like of which is familiar among American conservatism. With this in mind, it’s notable that the essay steers clear of the familiar anti-government, pro-individual liberty arguments that one might expect. Indeed the essay argues that the government can play an active role in providing a solution, citing the example of the US government’s “decades-long anti-tobacco campaign”, which has resulted in a dramatic fall in tobacco use, despite tobacco products remaining legal and available.

The essay concludes with a thoughtful discussion on some of the obstacles to establishing social norms. The section on virtue was particularly good: “Positive social norms often require the exercise of virtue—work, continence, delayed gratification. Virtue does not come easily to most of us. Developing virtue requires sustained effort and self-denial…So the first difficulty in establishing positive social norms lies in the difficulty of conquering ourselves.

As I have said, arriving at a practical solution to a problem such as this presents a huge challenge. The statistics on children’s outcomes highlight a serious problem requiring a serious solution. But it’s a big step to then say that marriage is therefore the right prescription for everyone who has children. Forcing (or indeed strongly encouraging) this could easily end up with a completely different set of social problems.

That said, there is a strong case for helping people understand that a two parent married couple offers the best environment for children. Providing people with the statistics on this will allow them to make informed decisions about whether or not to have children. As the essay makes clear, it’s about gradually changing social norms rather than introducing heavy-handed policies that might result in negative outcomes. In theory, this is all well and good. But devising a method to achieve it is incredibly challenging.

I encourage you to read the essays in full, which are available at the following link (Carissa’s begins on p 38).

http://www.li.com/docs/default-source/publications/css2014_essays_web.pdf?sfvrsn=4

 

 

1 Bernardo is a research associate at the Centre for Critical Thought at the University of Kent

2 Mats is a doctoral student at the Helsinki Swedish School of Economics

3 Carissa is the Special Assistant to Commissioner Peter Kirsanow of the US Commission on Civil Rights