In his 2009 bestseller One Day, British actor-turned-screenwriter-turned-novelist David Nicholls traced the inevitable romantic collision of star-crossed college acquaintances via snapshots, taken on the same calendar date each year, over their 20-year journey to togetherness.
In his equally nimble follow-up, Us, Nicholls reverses course to chronicle the gradual disintegration of the 30-year marriage of a well-intentioned if hopelessly mismatched London couple who never quite recovered from the death of their infant firstborn daughter.
“One Day is a very classic will-they-or-won’t-they-get-together love story; over 20 years, how do they change and how are they finally drawn to one another and finally make a life together?” Nicholls says from his home in London. “Us is sort of what comes next, I suppose. The questions are: Will they stay together? Do they belong together? Is this going to last? It’s not a sequel to One Day in any specific way. It’s more of a companion piece, I suppose.”
Narrator Douglas Petersen is a buttoned-up, left-brained biochemist who’s still baffled that his free-spirited, right-brained artist wife Connie chose to marry him. When Connie wakes him in the middle of the night to suggest that their 30-year marriage may have run its course, the scientist in Douglas cooks up a logical solution: a Grand Tour of the continent’s art masterpieces with their moody, artistic teenage son Albie.
In the course of this Griswold-esque forced march, Douglas is rescued from a biker beating by a prostitute in Amsterdam, Albie bails to Italy with an accordion-playing female busker, and Connie retreats home, there to hover via smartphone as the determined father fumbles to find and emotionally connect with their wayward son.
Love, loss, laughter and tears are the primary colors to which Nicholls adds subtle shades of wit and wisdom that enable his characters to transcend the page. Little wonder that Us was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize even before it hit U.S. bookshelves.
Nicholls admits he took his own roundabout journey to fiction writing, having spent the better part of the 1990s as a struggling actor, including three years with the Royal National Theater. That apprenticeship morphed into script reading for BBC Radio Drama, script editing for London Weekend Television, script adaptation (Much Ado About Nothing; Tess of the D’Urbervilles) and eventually scriptwriting for TV (“Waiting”; “I Saw You”) and film (One Day; Starter for Ten).
“Sadly, I wasn’t an accomplished actor at all. I realized it wasn’t acting that I enjoyed; it was the characters and stories,” he says. “I do regret the fact that I wasted eight years of my life pursuing something that I couldn’t do, but I think I learned a lot from it. It was good training.”
The breakout success of One Day and the book tour that followed found its way into the comedic framework of Us.
“When One Day came out, I went on something of a grand tour myself, visiting a lot of the cities I’d read about but never seen, and I thought it would be a funny idea to set someone out on that kind of journey, but in middle age,” he says. “It also was a chance for me to write about travel, which I love, but not in the hokey glories-of-Venice, splendors-of-Rome way. I wanted to write about it more as it’s experienced—the coffee stains, missed trains, bad breath and cheap hotels.”
Readers couldn’t have asked for a better traveler-without-a-clue than Douglas, whose command of the minutiae of train schedules and hotel check-in times borders on the obsessive. How did a biochemist stumble into this rom-com?
“My novels had always been about the arts, books and TV and films, things I understand. I thought it would be interesting to write about things that I didn’t really understand, like science and the visual arts,” Nicholls explains. “Douglas doesn’t really believe in fiction; he’s rather repressed and buttoned-up. There’s a key line where he says, ‘I love my wife more than I could say, and so I never said it.’ That’s sort of what I love about him, the deep well of emotion and passion that lies just beneath the surface.”
Nicholls and Douglas do share one memorable moment: the Amsterdam scene in which the scientist accidentally topples a line of expensive motorcycles, nearly sparking a riot. “That happened to me pretty much as written three years ago,” Nicholls chuckles. “I managed to escape, but it was pretty horrific.”
If One Day explored the adage that opposites attract, Us tests its staying power.
“Douglas and Connie’s marriage is a bit like a lot of relationships: the differences initially intrigue you. It’s only when children become involved that the different attitudes you have and different outlooks on life can become a problem,” Nicholls says.
Speaking of problems, how does one craft a happy ending to a marriage falling apart?
“That’s a tricky one,” he admits. “I still think of Us as a love story; it has a lot in it that’s romantic. But it’s probably a little more grown up, a little darker, a little more ambiguous, and I think that all of those things are good. Hopefully, in the same way that people saw themselves in One Day, they will see themselves in Us.”
"Hopefully, in the same way that people saw themselves in One Day, they will see themselves in Us."
The film adaptation of One Day opened shortly after the book’s publication, with Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess starring in Nicholls’ screenplay—but the author has other plans for Us.
“I really want it to have a proper life as a book first. Also, I think it’s a very, very hard book to adapt, which is why I won’t adapt it. Someone else will have to take it on.”