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You Are Here by David Nicholls: A highly relatable love story of significance

This novel is vintage Nicholls and shows that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step

You Are Here
You Are Here
Author: David Nicholls
ISBN-13: 9781444715446
Publisher: Sceptre
Guideline Price: £20

One of the joys of reading a David Nicholls novel is his seamless way with plotting and structure, his tactical use of sliding-doors moments and turning points where the reader is able to see more than the character but can do nothing except sit back and watch as the hero or heroine makes one poor, ill-informed decision after the next.

This is bread-and-butter suspense writing, but the ease and originality with which Nicholls, who is also an acclaimed screenwriter, employs the tricks of the trade means the obvious – missed calls, missed connections, missed opportunities – never feels derivative.

The depth of Nicholls’s characterisation and his vibrantly drawn backdrops give his novels the ring of authenticity. So too does his abiding preoccupation with chance, how little control we have over our lives in the end. In the world of Nicholls, this feeds into theme and technique. Delays, obstacles and adversity feature prominently in his books and work particularly well with the type of will-they-won’t-they romance storyline at the heart of his latest novel, You Are Here.

An epigraph from Austen’s Persuasion gives some idea of the terrain: a central duo who feel they are already beyond hope of finding love again. Divorced copywriter Marnie leads an increasingly solitary and contained life in the wake of the pandemic. Michael is a geography teacher in his 40s suffering from PTSD after a traumatic event. When their mutual friend Cleo, a no-nonsense deputy head, organises a group to go hiking in Cumbria, the shape of the book takes hold: a literal journey for both characters with plenty of uphill struggles and freewheeling downs in a believable and ultimately hopeful narrative of second chances.


While Marnie and the rest of the group, which includes other single people to get in the way of things, plan a short three-day adventure, Michael intends to complete a mammoth coast-to-coast, 12-day hike from St Bee’s to Robin’s Bay. This is clever storytelling that gives a tight, pressurised time frame to the romance plot, along with a natural forum for backstory as the characters get to know each other along the walk. A mix of humorous and poignant insight keeps things buoyant, as does the old classic of contrasting character types.

Nicholls is the bestselling author of Starter for Ten, The Understudy, One Day, Us and Sweet Sorrow. One Day was translated into 40 languages, selling millions of copies worldwide. His fourth novel, Us, was longlisted for the Booker Prize. His screenwriting credits include adaptations of Dickens, Hardy and most recently One Day for Netflix. His adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose, one of the best TV series in recent years, was nominated for an Emmy and won him a Bafta.

You Are Here contains plenty of casually imparted wisdom characteristic of his writing: “[Michael] was well-liked as a teacher, more than he knew, though he could no longer pull off the larky irreverence required to be adored.” Marnie’s take on scrolling social media is that “she felt as if she was looking up at a party from beneath a lamp-post”. Back in the real world, somewhere up a treacherous hill, she begins to panic as a sombre mood takes over the hike: “Melancholy was creeping in, the kind of distilled, high-grade sadness found under a bus shelter in a rainy seaside town.”

In the hands of another writer, the amount of backstory in the initial chapters could cause a drag, but Nicholls finds smart ways to impart key information

Occasionally this talent for analogy is a drawback, as when Nicholls overextends a metaphor that doesn’t require clarification, unable to resist the bright new image. The plot also takes a while to get going. In the hands of another writer, the amount of backstory in the initial chapters could cause a drag, but Nicholls finds smart ways to impart key information, such as Marnie’s brutal summary of the decrease in festivities and friendships from her 21st to 40th birthdays.

The characterisation of the leads is superb, two people who are full of flaws and mistakes and messy histories, which is to say two characters who feel fully human. Their sparky dialogue gives great momentum to the story. Nicholls writes women and men with equal flair, right down to the smallest detail: “She’d had her hair cut a week before so that it could settle a little.” The backdrop of the English hills is similarly detailed, by turns severe and sublime, the mostly bleak weather nicely incompatible with romance.

You Are Here is a compassionate and clear-eyed account of two people trying to decide whether to leave themselves open to fail, to love, again. It is vintage Nicholls, a highly relatable story of significance, that shows (forgive me) that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts