The Evening Game's Modern Classics: 'Us' by David Nicholls
At an ungodly hour one morning, Connie tells Douglas the thought of the two of them alone in the house together without their son Albie is "like a Beckett play". Douglas hasn't seen any Beckett plays, but senses this is not a good thing.
The pair have been married for 21 years and have planned one last family trip to Europe before Albie leaves to study photography, but Connie's decision to leave Douglas once the trip is done turns their holiday into an increasingly desperate one.
Nicholls' previous novel was the 2009 phenomenon One Day, which sold five million copies. Us taps into that same sad/funny vein, though this time there's a sole narrator, the strait-laced Douglas, an earnest scientist who views dinner parties as "a pitiless form of gladiatorial combat". When he is corralled into one such event, however, he falls for Connie. She's completely different from him - cultured, vivacious and charmingly free-spirited, though sometimes intolerant of anyone not charmingly free-spirited in the exact same way she is.
The narrative seamlessly flashes back and forth between the built-up frustrations and petty squabbles of their Grand Tour and the early days of their fumbling, transformative romance. Their beginnings were a heady time, but for Douglas also fraught with a fear he didn't belong in the exciting new world Connie ushered him into.
Parenthood only exacerbates their divide and Albie grows into an artistically inclined, self-focused character much more comfortable with Connie's bohemianism than Douglas' sober approach to life. As Albie communicates with his father mainly through grunts and disdain, Douglas feels Albie and Connie have ganged up on him and have overlooked his better qualities.
The trio's dynamics form a kind of modern spin on the old odd-couple trope, but the raging insecurity and simmering frustrations wrought by those with vastly different temperaments trying to get along has rarely been so hilarious and so utterly painful.
This is a wildly successful return; barely a page passes without some cringe-inducing flash of humour, some small moment of pathos or a quotable one-liner. All those enraptured by One Day's surprising depth, pitch-perfect balance of satire and generosity and its insights into contemporary relationships will find plenty more to love and argue about here.