Divorced, Disheveled and Hiking Toward Love

YOU ARE HERE, by David Nicholls

David Nicholls’s captivating new novel takes place almost entirely during a guided, days-long walk through the English countryside, past perilous crags, moors and villages with names like Buttermere, Honister Pass and Bolton-on-Swale. In lesser hands, “You Are Here” might be a literal slog, but Nicholls has fashioned an ideal structure for an affectingly hard-won romance, a genre he has honed as the author of many best sellers, including the much loved and repeatedly adapted “One Day.”

Here, a sightseeing, exercise-anticipating group — “four single people, a married couple, a teenager” — is soon winnowed, thanks to the punishing rain and boot-sucking mud, to just two: Michael Bradshaw, a geography teacher, and Marnie Walsh, a freelance copy editor, both barely recovered from divorces.

Michael, while morosely pining for his ex, still becomes a sturdy and slyly amusing authority figure, his journey “the kind of obsessive project that overtakes men in the middle of life.” He believes that “stepping outside transformed loneliness into solitude,” and his recently grown beard gives him the look, according to Marnie, of “someone who’d spent a year filming puffins in the Hebrides.” While rarely self-pitying, Michael is flailing amid the debris of a loving marriage gone sour and the aftershocks of a random act of street violence.

Marnie is a compulsively witty, winningly cranky near-agoraphobe. While the novel isn’t set during the coronavirus pandemic, those years of enforced isolation and working from home inform the narrative, as Michael and Marnie crawl out from their respective, maybe-too-comfortable burrows. Marnie grew up so obsessed with books that “my parents actually told me to read less.” She admits that she sometimes wished she were an orphan, although “only for the narrative possibilities.”

After splitting from a shallow and unappreciative husband who resembled “the least popular member of a boy band,” Marnie, whose career can be pursued entirely on her laptop, has become estranged from coupled friends and their growing families. She’s someone addicted to “the pleasure of the canceled plan” — not out of envy or spite, but a hermit’s discomfort.

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