US by David Nicholls
Long listed for Man Booker Prize 2014
Poor Douglas. At age 54, his wife out of the blue declares that she no longers wants to be married to him. Talk about being thrown a curve ball. Douglas is an industrial biochemist, very buttoned up, somewhat nerdy, and has been married for 20 plus years to the beautiful Connie, his polar opposite in personality and temperament. She is artistic, creative, and very unbuttoned up. Together they have a 17 year old son, Albie, very like his mother, who has just finished school, and like many school leavers uncertain as to what to do next.
In a last ditch attempt to save his marriage and improve his relationship with Albie, Douglas decides to take his family on a Grand Tour of Europe, in the footsteps of many young men of means in the 18th and 19th centuries. Being anally retentive, the trip has been planned down to the last detail - the major cities; accommodation carefully chosen for its proximity to galleries, cafes, tourist sites; travel between cities carefully plotted; points of interest carefully researched. Very little room left for spontaneity. Douglas has the best of intentions, but of course it all goes completely wrong. And Douglas not only learns more about his wife and his son, but above all, finds out amazing things about himself.
The story is told in two strands - in the present with Connie dropping her bombshell, and the Grand Tour unfolding. And in the past from the beginning of the relationship between Connie and Douglas - how they met, courtship, marriage, the various challenges they faced over the years, Albie. To the present day.
It is a coming of age story in reverse - it is not Albie the teenager who is finding himself, but Douglas who is on the journey of discovery on the Grand Tour. It is funny, tender, poignant, sad, deep and meaningful, and also light and frothy. It is like chick lit, but being written by a man, and about a man, may not fall into the traditional chick lit catergory. In fact many of the on line reviews are written by men, so it has obviously struck a chord with both men and women. And surely that has to be a sign of a well written and put together book - it can be enjoyed and appreciated by anyone, and I am sure that both men and women who have been in long term relationships with the empty nest scenario happening will relate in many ways to the Petersen family - Douglas, Connie and Albi.
I loved reading about the Grand Tour - the travel, the food, being a tourist in Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Florence, Pisa, Siena, the sights. I did have a little problem with Douglas and Connie. I simply could not see how these two ever got together in the first place with their wildly different personalities and life styles. What was even stranger, was how the person who is set on leaving her husband can then go away on holiday with him, share a bed with him, and obviously care for him. I found it a little far fetched.
However it does not detract at all from the great story telling, the wonderful and real characters of Douglas, Connie, Albie and a young New Zealand woman called Kat whom Albie picks up on his travels. A most interesting young woman, who could well be subject of a book entirely about her.