9780062365583_p0_v4_s260x420How do you react when you know someone is testing you – try your best to pass the test, or resent the pressure? In David Nicholls “Us,” Douglas Petersen has only the family summer trip to Europe to prove his worth to his wife, who has informed him she is leaving after their son goes off to college in the Fall. Makes you wonder why he would bother – but he does.

“There’s a saying…if you love someone you must set them free. Well, that’s just nonsense. If you love someone, you bind them to you with heavy metal chains.”

The first half of the book follows Douglas, the earnest scientist, and his wife Connie, the free spirit artist, as they try to educate their teenage son in the beauty of European art, as the family starts its ” World Tour.” The squabbles will be familiar to anyone who has tried to raise a teenager and the descriptions of the continental surroundings will bring nostalgia to anyone who has been to Paris and Amsterdam. As the reader gets to know the two principal characters, their extreme differences emerge, and it’s a wonder they have stayed together for twenty-five years.  As well-meaning as Douglas is, his starched attitude toward life is annoying. Of course, organization and sensible living has its virtues, but Douglas seems to have become mired in them, and lost all sense of fun and adventure. On the other hand, the mother/son recklessness counters his rigidness, and you may find yourself rooting for him, while wishing he would acquire more spontaneity.

By the second half of the book, the family journey has dissolved into a mother going home alone, the teenager going off with a newfound girlfriend, and Douglas determinedly pursuing his son across Europe – to find him, to apologize for not defending him in a bar brawl, and to save his family. As the tale follows Douglas through Verona, Venice, Florence, and Sienna, his character changes, morphing from stale rules follower and guidebook reader to a sympathetic version of Charlie Brown – a good guy, despite his quirks.  The epiphany in Barcelona leads to a new understanding among the three characters, but Nicholls adjusts the romantic ending I had hoped for, into a realistic amalgam of trust, love, and self-discovery.

The thoughtful exploration of this marriage, with its familiar rhythms, had me hoping for some compassion for Douglas, who could not help who he is – and Nicholls delivers.  But, whenever I decide to venture on a World Tour, I am bringing this book with me – from London, through Paris and Amsterdam, with train rides across Europe to Italy, and eventually Madrid and Barcelona – Nicholls offers a connection better than any guide book.


What the Family Needed

9781594486395_p0_v1_s260x420Steven Amsterdam’s What The Family Needed offers  perspective on how people cope with drama in their lives.  In a series of stories that span three decades, each focused on a member of two related families, Amsterdam gives some fantastic help – each person develops the superpower needed at the time: invisibility for the teenager coping with being uprooted by her parents’ divorce, the ability to hear mute patients’ thoughts for the hospice nurse, the at-home father who can fly away, and more.  Although Amsterdam plays it straight – he actually has each character practice his or her new skill – the underlying possibilities for everyman are clear.  Who wouldn’t want to fly away or be invisible now and then?

Alek, the troubled youngest child, wanders through the action of the others, teasing the reader with the possibility of his superpower, which is revealed in the last chapter -leaving the reader wondering if any of it actually occurred.

Strange but thoughtful read – not for everyone – but Amsterdam kept my attention throughout and piqued my curiosity.  What superpower would help you get through the day?

History of a Pleasure Seeker

In the tradition of Edith Wharton, Richard Mason observes the wealthy and those who aspire to be like them in The History of a Pleasure Seeker. The novel moves from Amsterdam to New York and South Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the upstairs/downstairs machinations provide excellent relief for those yearning for the return of Downton Abbey. But beware, Mason’s erotic descriptions are not for the prudish. At times, you will think you are reading a book that deserves a bodice-ripping cover instead of the staid back view of a young gentleman.

Piet Barol has yearned for a life of wealth with all its accompanying privileges, and his dead French mother has prepared him well with lessons on manners and music. With his first job, as tutor to young Egbert at the family mansion of a wealthy Dutch hotelier, Piet hopes to finally use his good looks and acquired charm to finesse a better life for himself. Mason uses Piet’s position as the tutor as the link between the upstairs and downstairs; he takes his meals and attends church with the family, while sharing bath water and camaraderie with the help.

Piet’s young pupil, Egbert, suffers from OCD and agoraphobia – the description of the boy’s infliction is as humorous as it is devastating. Charged with curing the boy, Piet ignores his mission until one of the mannered sisters of the house challenges his boasts of horsemanship, tricking him into a painful ride. His angry response which almost costs him his job, turns out to be the beginning of the cure.

Piet also enjoys amorous attention from the lady of the house, who repeatedly requests his sexual prowess, as her relief from her husband’s sexual indifference toward her – brought on by his secret religious pact to cease all intercourse after the birth of a son. Maarten Vermeulen-Sickerts, the master of the house, has his own reasons for appreciating Piet…

“But as he looked as the young man who was now his tutor, who asked such intelligent questions and whose manners were commendably amiable and discreet, he began to feel optimistic about his son’s chances… and he felt a twinge of relief that responsibility for Egbert’s developing masculinity was no longer his alone.”

Although this sounds more soap opera than literary, Mason connects the plot to the undercurrent of differences between the classes. The historical perspective has World War I approaching and the New York banks failing, and Mason’s dialogue and descriptions transport the reader to the Belle Époque era,

When the possible discovery of Piet’s scandalous behavior with the lady of the house threatens Piet’s standing, he sails for South Africa and a new adventure begins on the long trip. He pays for steerage and yet enjoys some first class perks, thanks to the former footman who shared his bath water at the mansion and is now a waiter on the voyage. En route, Piet experiences his first true love with an actress singing in the ship’s opera, and his first sexual encounter with a man. All ends well, with Piet’s future looking promising once again.

Although Piet is clearly an opportunist, I couldn’t help cheering for him. Each time he loses everything and must start anew, Mason fortifies his character’s resolve and on he goes. The story starts slowly but as Piet’s fate evolves, the characters gets into a good rhythm (pardon the pun).