Sad and funny is one of my favorite combinations in a novel, and this one has the perfect balance.The set-up: a mismatched but long-married English couple are about to send their only child off to college. Their plan is to take one last vacation together before he leaves — a nod to the “Grand Tour” tradition, where upper class young men visited the cultural capitals of Europe, mainly in France and Italy. The catch: after the travel is booked and the plans are made, Connie, the wife, tells her husband Douglas that she will probably want a divorce when they return. But they can “see how it goes” — maybe not.
So we have a tour of Europe that has more than the usual amount of pressure to enjoy every moment. Douglas, a scientist, leaves nothing to chance — so much so that Connie, an artist, has more than once accused him of squeezing the last bit of joy out of any experience. Their son Albie, also an artist, has always been closer to his mother, so Douglas has two people to win over, really, while making sure that nothing goes amiss on their tour. What could possibly go wrong? Here’s Douglas’ account of their Paris hotel:
In planning our trip I had initially adopted a no-expense-spared attitude, until I calculated the full extent of this expense, at which point I adopted a comfortable-but-no-frills policy. It was this that brought us to the Hotel Bontemps, which may or may not translate as the Good Times Hotel, in the 7th arrondissement. Room 602 was clearly the result of a wager to determine the smallest space into which a double mattress can fit. Brassy and vulgar, the bed frame must have been assembled inside like a ship in a bottle. On closer examination, it also seemed our room was a repository for all of Europe’s spare pubic hair.
‘All in all, I’d have preferred a chocolate on the pillow,’ said Connie, swatting them away.
Nicholls alternates stops on the tour — Amsterdam, Paris, Venice, Barcelona — with scenes from the earliest days of Douglas and Carol’s relationship. They’re so different in temperament and interests that we wonder how they’ve made it this far. Their ability to make each other laugh has a lot to do with it. I found myself rooting for them to keep the marriage afloat, through a series of challenges including, but not limited to a manic, pastry stealing girl accordionist with a crush on Albie, and a swarm of stinging Mediterranean jellyfish.
author photo: The Times of London