I expected Us to be a romantic comedy about a couple on a journey back to each other, because that’s what the book’s cover blurbs say. It is not exactly that. There is some comedy, to be sure. There’s certainly a marriage between two people who love each other. And there’s a lot of kvetching about and working through relationships.
But I wouldn’t call it a romantic comedy. I think this book has a different set of allies in the growing group of books that explore middle-aged masculinity. Recent novels that incorporate this topic (albeit in different ways) include Ted Thompson’s The Land of Steady Habits, Peter Mountford’s The Dismal Science: A Novel, and Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of Poets. In each of these books, comedy is the tote bag that carries the plot along, but the emotional center of the story is serious.
Us involves Douglas, whose marriage to his wife, Connie, is on its last gasp. His teenaged son is leaving the nest, and Douglas decides to take the family on a last-ditch family vacation to restore harmony. Along the way, he wrestles with what it means to “be himself,” what role work has had in his life, and what kind of father he has been.
This novel is told from Douglas’ point of view. This is his story alone. The book is about a man’s self-discovery, and, in particular, what it means for him to be part of mutually satisfying relationships. We learn about Connie, but it is always through Douglas’ lens.
I enjoyed it the whole way through – though I did think that some of the slapstick comedy was too much, as if it were designed for the movie this novel is destined to become. My favorite moments were quiet – when the reader learns that Douglas’ version of events is not fully reliable.
This book was on the long list of nominees for the 2014 Booker Prize. And with that in mind, here’s one thing that struck me: I think that if this had been a story about Connie’s self-discovery, the exact same journey but with the wife at the center, it would have been branded “chick lit.” It would have had a cover that featured a woman with flowing hair or a bouquet of flowers. It would never have been noticed by a prize committee or featured on the capital-L Literature table at the bookstore. And if I’m right, what kind of great stories are we passing over because of that branding?
It turns out that there are lots of conversation about this topic. Here’s a whole cluster of articles about the pros and cons of gendered marketing on the Huffington Post. Here’s an interesting one on Salon. And here’s a little humor about chick-litifying the classics.