By David Nicholls. (Harper, 396 pages, $26.99.)
Douglas Petersen is a mild-mannered, middle-aged, middle-level scientist who only really comes alive when he is talking about his research, which involves fruit flies. He somehow ended up with a beautiful, vivacious wife, a woman as spontaneous and bright as he is cautious and beige. He knows he's lucky. But his luck is about to change.
Douglas wakes up one night to hear Connie tell him she's not sure she wants to be married anymore. The family is about to set out on a Grand Tour of Europe, a last hurrah before their surly son leaves for college. How can they possibly travel now, with everything in flux, and with Douglas' heart on the verge of being broken?
But travel they do, and their sad and hilarious and slightly wacky adventures make up the bulk of "Us," interspersed with flashbacks from the beginning of Connie and Douglas' relationship. The two tracks make for an entertaining read; the European vacation is the disaster that it was clearly doomed to be, but the insight gleaned from the flashbacks give the story depth. A sweet and entertaining book about love, loss and middle-aged regret by the author of the bestselling "One Day," and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Senior editor/ Books
How to Build a Girl
By Caitlin Moran. (Harper, 341 pages, $26.99.)
Caitlin Moran, British author of the bestselling feminist memoir/manifesto "How to Be a Woman," has produced her first novel, "How to Build a Girl," a funny, filthy and ultimately touching coming-of-age story. Bright teenage Johanna Morrigan lives with her large family (older brother, younger brother, "accidental" infant twin brothers, postpartum-depressed mom, scheming disabled would-be musician dad) in poverty in Wolverhampton. She sets about remaking herself into top-hat-wearing Dolly Wilde (named for Oscar Wilde's "amazing alcoholic lesbian" niece): vicious and feared chronicler of the early 1990s music scene for D&ME magazine and sexual adventuress.
Johanna's attempts at growing up are, in turn, horrifying, hilarious and disturbing, as she throws herself wholeheartedly into her quest. But has she succeeded in building herself into the person she wants to be?
Moran draws on her experiences as a music journalist to offer entertaining vignettes from that scene. With its laugh-out-loud turns of phrase and insightful glimpses into economic distress, "How to Build a Girl" is raunchy, wry and thoughtful — much like its vivacious heroine.