Douglas and Connie Petersen have been married for twenty-five years and have a seventeen year old son, Albie. They have planned a month long Grand Tour of Europe and its spectacular art, their last family vacation before Albie leaves for college. But even before they leave, Connie wakes Douglas in the middle of the night and tells him that she thinks their marriage has run its course and she might leave him when they come back from Europe. The news is a terrible blow to Douglas, whose world has been made brighter for so long by the arty and worldly Connie's presence in it. Since the vacation is still going ahead, Douglas intends to try and repair the damage with his wife, damage he has been ignorant of for the most part, to rescue his marriage and to try and connect with the spoiled, sullen Albie as well.
But what vacation goes as planned? There are tender moments but there's also bickering and misunderstanding and wrong-footedness too. There's a spectacular lack of communication and unrealized expectations. Douglas narrates the novel looking back at the trip and even further back at his long history with Connie. He is as straight and milquetoast as you might expect a biochemist to be but has a wonderfully witty turn of phrase, even when he doesn't realize he's being funny. He is unflinchingly honest about his own acknowledgement of his mediocrity and the fact that he should never have ended up with a vibrant and unique Connie. He details and defends his conventionality as he realizes that it is this constrained, uber-planned manner that has him so often at odds with his free-spirited wife and son. And yet he cannot let go of the very safe conventions that are such a part of his fabric. As the three Petersens travel around Europe, he tries very hard, commenting on the famous art in ways that just make Connie and Albie shake their heads. But it has always been a bit of mother and son against dad in their family and this trip just highlights that all the more. None of it is entirely unexpected though. It's only when the whole thing goes tits up that Douglas starts to really think deeply about the future and his relationships with both Connie and Albie.
Nicholls skillfully weaves both the trip and the previous twenty-five years together in Douglas' first person narration. And using Douglas to narrate makes the reader much more sympathetic to someone who might otherwise be the less appealing character. Douglas' confused honesty, his attempts to do or say the right thing and yet still missing the point entirely, his introspection about his fundamental differences with Connie and why staying with her is so important to him, and his sincere desire to be the hero of the family all combine to make him a pitiable and yet engaging character. As he narrates, the reader also gets a good sense of Connie and Albie's characters too, especially when Douglas looks back with regret for choices he made along the way. Nicholls is a fantastic writer and the fate of this mismatched family is one that really gets under the reader's skin. There are moments of predictability for anyone who has themselves been in a long relationship but they heighten the realism of the tale and then are often turned on their heads in the end anyway. The story is a poignant look at marriage and parenting, a beautiful rendering of growing up and out-growing the life you've created.
website, his Facebook page, or take a look at the book's page on GoodReads. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book. And finally, watch this video: to hear David Nicholls himself talk about the book.
Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.