Marriage at Midlife

David Nicholls built layers of romance and nostalgia with his time-jumping star-crossed lovers in OneDay. Nicholls returned last year with another look into personal histories with Us (Audio).

Douglas Petersen, scientist, punster, and all around mild-mannered regular guy, is on a mission to save his family (from himself, as it turns out, but he’s only able to see this in small glimpses of self-awareness). His wife of over 20 years thinks she just might want a divorce, and his only son, Albie, alternates between ignoring his father and despising everything he stands for. What’s a beleaguered man to do but plan an old-fashioned grand tour of the great art of Europe to bring the three of them together?

As the family crosses the English Channel with Douglas’ carefully planned and detailed itinerary in hand, their fragile peace begins to dissolve almost immediately, and Douglas takes the reader back to the beginning, when the sweet but decidedly uncool biochemist won the heart and hand of arty, beautiful Connie. Despite their differences, marriage eventually followed, and family. Douglas is a sympathetic character, but his honest narrative of their lives together shows that he is not a victim, but an active participant in the rift in his family. Like real life, there is little black and white here, only lots of gray. Connie and Albie, with their artistic interests and temperaments, have a bond that Douglas can’t crack, often excluding him in a way that can seem almost cruel. But later, we learn how Douglas’ own inability to appreciate Albie’s strengths and accept another point of view has played a large part in driving in the wedge between them. The grand tour becomes a farce when Albie runs away with an accordion-wielding street performer and Connie returns home, leaving Douglas alone abroad, trying to redeem himself.

It can be difficult to find novels about marriage – not the bloom of love that leads to a ring that drives so much chick lit, and not the deeply wounded spiraling in infidelity and divorce – but the more quotidian ups and downs of married life. Us does this, acknowledging that whatever happens between Douglas and Connie today has deep roots in their past, as well as repercussions for the future.

I also enjoyed Wife 22 (Audio) by Melanie Gideon for its portrait of a marriage gone not exactly wrong, but definitely ready for a tune-up. Gideon blends up to the minute social media references with humor and heart as Alice explores her early days with William through an anonymous online survey, contrasting the budding romance with the middle-aged challenges of teenagers, unemployment, and the distances that can accumulate across a queen-size bed.

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