I’ve heard a lot of good things about this author over the years, and when I came across this book in Waterstones, I opened the first page, read it and wanted to read more. It’s radically different from the majority of the books I read – would I enjoy it?
Douglas and Connie, scientist and artist, and for more than twenty years, husband and wife until suddenly, their marriage seems over. But Douglas is going to win back the love of his wife and the respect of Albie, their teenage son, by organising the holiday of a lifetime. He has booked the hotels, bought the train tickets, planned and printed the itinerary for a ‘grand tour’ of the great art galleries of Europe. What could possibly go wrong?
This is a roller-coaster of a book. As you might imagine from the blurb there are all sorts of opportunities for farcical mishaps that had me sniggering into the night. Except… I really, really cared about David. And Connie and even – eventually – Albie. So that while I found myself laughing on one page, the next one brought a lump to my throat. This book is funny, but humour can be cruel. We laugh at people more often than we laugh with them and although Douglas offers himself up as the butt for many jokes he tells against himself, this is far more than a mere farce. It is a tale of a relationship that has weathered both triumph and tragedy.
As he faces losing Connie and Albie, Douglas takes us back to when he first met Connie, the early days of their relationship, their deepest joys and the worst calamities that engulf them. Douglas is the main protagonist and tells the story in first person. I fell in love with him during the book, despite his unfailing ability to put his foot in his mouth and his lack of emotional intelligence. This is the man who superglued his small son’s Lego figures so they wouldn’t come apart and become untidy… This is also the man who walked his feet to ribbons searching for said son to try and undo a mistake he made. Douglas is flawed, human and valiant. There is a dogged determination that has him put his head down and battle on when the going gets tough. I stayed up far later than I should, to discover whether he prevails.
The ending is interesting. I certainly didn’t see it coming and it left me unsettled with a sharp realisation as to why I generally read books set thousands of light years away, or in fantastical worlds as far away from here and now as I can possibly get. But it’s a book that won’t leave me alone. I find it creeping into my hindbrain when I’m not thinking about my own work. That Nicholls is a writer at the top of his game goes without saying. The story is perfectly pitched, with just the right mix of humour and heartbreak.
Am I glad I read it? Oh yes. I keep nagging Himself to read it, as I want his opinion, too. And you – I’d like you to read it. Let me know what you think about it. Because I reckon it’s one of my outstanding reads of the year. And there isn’t a dragon or alien in sight…