The structure, story, and heartbreak of Us

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If you’ve never read a book by David Nicholls, I’ll bet you still know something about him and his style of writing.
Don’t believe me?
Think about the book/movie One Day. It’s a sort-of disastrous Anne Hathaway movie and I’m sure you know that the concept involves returning to the same characters once per year, always on the same day. I haven’t read or seen it but I imagine that after much heartbreak, Anne Hathaway falls in love on the very day we revisit her.

“Hey Red Brick Reads, where are you going with this?”
Glad you asked.
Nicholls relies on unusual story structures to develop and deliver plot. And he does this exceptionally well. Us does not return to the one-day-a-year pattern, but instead tells us the story of a relationship by detailing its formation and unravelling in parallel tales. Think about the brilliance of that strategy. Nicholls wants to tell us the story of a couple who are contemplating divorce. By starting at the present-day, he might struggle to rouse our emotions because by the time we meet the couple, their love has gone bitter. You can’t understand the tragedy of divorce unless you understand the glory of the love that preceded it.

So what’s a writer to do?

Proceed chronologically? That too is problematic because you’re forced to spend time in the boring middle part of a relationship and no one cares about that bit. We care about the passionate love-making that begins an affair and the furious plate-smashing that ends it. The middle bit is the stuff of our daily lives. No reader will lose themself in a story about unpacking the dishwasher and negotiating who will run the dog out on a snowy Saturday morning.

The decision to change the time period from scene to scene, to go from “I want to leave you,” to the day the couple first meet, to the morning after the proclamation that the marriage is ending, back to the first time they make love is the perfect arrangement. The ending is so much more tragic because we, the reader, were there for the beginning.

A couple of other odds and ends to mention, a positive and negative take-away to help you decide whether or not to make time for Us. Where Nicholls succeeds as a master of plot, he sometimes fails as a sculptor of character and I found myself frustrated by the flatness of some of the characters. The protagonist Douglas, the man who is struggling to save his marriage, is painted as a demanding but frustrated father. His relationship with his teenage son Albie is fraught and much of the conflict between them hinges on the fact that Albie is artistic and Douglas wishes he were studious. Douglas’s attitude towards his son and his pursuit of photography sometimes seems almost cruel and this doesn’t mesh with how we know Douglas as a character. There’s no subtlety in the relationship and Nicholls seems to be rushing to prove a point about their relationship to drive the plot. This bugged me.

I forgave Nicholls because of a scene of such heart-breaking reality that it hasn’t left my mind. Early in their marriage, Douglas and his wife Connie lose their infant daughter. This isn’t a spoiler, it’s revealed early in the book. Much later, Douglas mentions that when their daughter died, the hospital encouraged them to take photos of her and create hand and footprints. They were told by hospital staff that as painful as it was to go through these motions, they would be glad to have these things in the future. Of course that winds up being true and the couple often returns to these photos of their baby daughter for comfort. Nothing about this moment seems fictional. If story-telling is meant to be driven by showing, not telling, then Nicholls is teaching a master class in story-telling in this scene. It broke my heart and it re-breaks each time I re-consider the scene. If you’re looking for some further reading, that scene reminded me of an essay in the New Yorker, in which the brilliant Ariel Levy tells the story of her personal tragedy. If you haven’t yet read Thanksgiving in Mongolia, please do. It is one of the most beautiful and most tragic pieces of prose I’ve ever come across.

 

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