It is 10 years since David Nicholls’ One Day elevated him from “ordinary” bestseller status—Starter for Ten (2003) followed by The Understudy (2005)—into the stratosphere. One Day, which was adapted into a Hollywood film starring Anne Hathaway, has sold 1.7 million copies to date. His total TCM sales, including his Man Booker-longlisted Us in 2014, stand at 2.74 million units. So, it is fair to say this new novel will be a publishing event and Hodder is planning a “huge” campaign, with a two-week author tour on publication.
Sweet Sorrow is set in 1997 over one life-changing summer. It is narrated by Charlie Lewis, looking back at his 16-year-old self, who has just left school with no firm plans for the future, other than a part-time, cash-in-hand job at a petrol station on the edge of his small town. Until the day he meets a girl, Fran Fisher, who is part of a theatre collective led by two boundingly enthusiastic Oxford graduates who want to bring the Bard to the masses. Fran is playing Juliet so Charlie, reluctant but desperate to get closer to Fran, joins too.
As ever, Nicholls is spot on when writing about love, and while this is primarily a story about “that brief, blinding explosion” of first love, it is also about Charlie’s teenage mates, with their savagely funny banter, and his complicated relationship with his father, who is sinking into depression after his wife leaves him. As big as One Day? I wouldn’t bet against it.
Their romance is exhilarating. You catch yourself knocking back paragraphs like a teenager doing shots, wincing for Charlie’s self-consciousness at every misplaced word and limb. Nicholls has been accused of coyness before. But here he is terrific on the fumbles of beginners sex, experienced to a soundtrack of Portishead, Elliott Smith and Mazzy Star. ... People who’ve never read Nicholls tend to dismiss him as sentimental and lightweight – an author of airport fiction designed to distract without adding to your mental luggage allowance. Though Sweet Sorrow is certainly pulse-quickening enough to absorb readers through this summer’s airport delays and rained-off beach days, it’s no escapist fantasy. The tale of Charlie and Fran will linger long beyond your tan.
Like Nicholls’s breakout big hit One Day, it is a Bildungsroman with a breezy literary bent. One Day draws on Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Nicholls had adapted the novel for the screen the year before his own book was published); here, we have a bit of Shakespeare, the story of his two doomed young lovers an undercurrent beneath the text.
This isn’t to say that Sweet Sorrow doesn’t have many of the attributes that have garnered Nicholls his legions of fans. He remains one of the most acute chroniclers of England as it is now, in all its dowdy downbeat glory and few can rival his grasp of the period’s minor-key class signifiers — the pompous local golf club, where they play “The Blue Danube” on loop, the Fisher family with their fresh herbs and wine at dinner (Charlie and his dad prefer ready-meal mash-ups like pasta madras). And of course the novel skips along merrily: the repartee frequently sparkles, the jokes are genuinely funny, walk-on characters are brilliantly sketched into life, and his genuine affection for the main players is evident throughout.
This – Nicholls’ fifth novel after the overwhelming success of Starter For Ten, The Understudy, One Day and Us – is a very enjoyable, very good read. In some ways the most severe criticism I might make of it is that it is almost too good. There is a zinger of a line on almost every page; I laughed, I cried, and at some points I did both at once, which is never good in pollen season. It is classic tragicomedy: comedy being tragedy plus time... In all, it is a bravura performance from someone with a track record in fashioning books that are both eminently readable and emotionally subtle. Sentimentality is an underrated genre in some ways. Done well it is incredibly affecting (pace Oscar Wilde on the death of Little Nell), but it hard to get right. Sweet Sorrow manages to be interesting, moving, hilarious and sad at the same time. I know when my heartstrings are being pulled, but tugged they assuredly were.
There are few novels that capture so well the beautiful misery, the boredom and excitement, the freedom and claustrophobia of teenage years as well as this. As Charlie says, “I longed for change, for something to happen, some adventure, and falling in love seemed more accessible than, say, solving a murder… if I had been busier that summer, or happier at home, then I might not have thought about her so much, but I was neither busy nor happy, and so I fell.”
David Nicholls is back with a book that will find its way into your heart and set up home...
This story perfectly captures the awkwardness and poignancy of first love
David Nicholls has written a nostalgic portrayal of teenage angst and first love...
A poignant tragicomedy...
Though the scenes with his father tend to drag, no one who has previously been seduced by the warmth and wry humour of Nicholls’s fiction is likely to be disappointed by the fizzing trajectory of the central plot. Sweet Sorrow is a funny, affectionate exploration of first love, viewed from the perspective of a bit-part player with no aspiration to become the romantic lead. Or to paraphrase slightly, there never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Benvolio.
Nicholls joins a long list of authors offering a contemporary take on Shakespeare, ranging from Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince (Hamlet) to Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (King Lear). Vintage’s 400th anniversary ‘Hogarth Shakespeare’ series required acclaimed writers, including Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood and Howard Jacobson, to come up with their own versions. ‘Oh, that I were a glove upon that hand and something-something-something,’ muses Charlie while gazing at Fran. Nothing is new. But great literature lends significance and resonance to the repetitions, even as Charlie rides his rusting bike around cul-de-sacs named Tennyson, Mary Shelley, Forster, Woolf and Hardy... Sweet Sorrow may not outshine One Day, but it is a compassionate, intelligent look at the raw pain and loneliness of a teenage boy, the everyday miracle of first love and the perennial power of Shakespeare’s language.
[C]rucially, Nicholls doesn’t just do the good bits. Being 16 was crap, for most people, most of the time. Nicholls writes all the rubbish stuff too – and this doesn’t diminish the nostalgia, but rather makes the book feel more truthful and mature.crucially, Nicholls doesn’t just do the good bits. Being 16 was crap, for most people, most of the time. Nicholls writes all the rubbish stuff too – and this doesn’t diminish the nostalgia, but rather makes the book feel more truthful and mature... Where Nicholls does have fun is in paralleling the plot of Romeo and Juliet, although – thankfully – this is done with a lightness of touch.
After the surprisingly grownup reiseroman that was the Booker-longlisted Us, Nicholls has returned to the tone and register of his multimillion-selling third novel, One Day. Sweet Sorrow is a book that does what Nicholls does best, sinking the reader deep into a nostalgic memory-scape, pinning the narrative to a love story that manages to be moving without ever tipping over into sentimentality, all of it composed with deftness, intelligence and, most importantly, humour. We may think of Nicholls as a writer of heartbreakers – One Day prompted many poolside tears – but he has always been a comic novelist and Sweet Sorrow is full of passages of laugh-out-loud Inbetweeners-ish humour...Nicholls is increasingly making his name as one of our leading screenwriters – his adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series was one of the best things on telly in recent years – but here he proves that he can still pull off that most rare and coveted of literary feats: a popular novel of serious merit, a bestseller that will also endure.
The sweltering inertia is relieved by brushfires of Nicholls’ crackling dialogue, sweeping up the readers and bearing them aloft on an updraft. From here we can survey the landscape — the job at the petrol station from where Charlie steals scratch cards, the miserable Tennyson council estate, and the depressed father anchored to Charlie’s sofa. We know there will be a parting. There is sweet sorrow in this deadbeat suburb — one memory of his father tugs achingly towards the end of the novel. But the plot lumbers — the furthest reaches of the map never feel explored.
Adrian Mole meets The Swish Of The Curtain in this lovely coming-of-age romcom about acting and the class divide by the author of bestsellers One Day, Us and Starter For Ten...
Charlie discovers sex, Shakespeare, true friendship and the middle classes; pretty good in six weeks’ holiday, it has to be said.
Still, this is a big-hearted book with wonderful set-pieces: the scene in which Charlie loses his virginity contains nothing exaggerated or outside most people’s experience but is made beautifully funny and touching by the decorous precision of Nicholls’s language. He is never likely to startle readers with any innovations, but his ability to make ordinary experience fascinating without losing the sense of ordinariness is rare enough that his books always seem as fresh as they are wise and funny.
The interesting thing about Nicholls’s fiction, given this megawatt success, is how essentially modest and gentle it is. His talent lies in heart-rending and witty explorations of fairly ordinary subjects: student life in Starter for Ten; career doldrums in The Understudy; a midlife marital crisis in Us. Essentially an uplifting romantic, he manages not to diminish life’s knocks and setbacks, while presenting them as survivable. It is practically impossible to review a Nicholls book without using the word “poignant”.
It’s all so English, so quietly provincial. Even the retrospective viewpoint (the story is told by grown-up Charlie, who may be about to meet Fran again for the first time in decades) adds a vague layer of fuzzy, deadening distance, rather than the extra whack of nostalgia it is supposed to.
The author of the bestselling One Day returns with this coming-of-age story. When 16-year-old Charlie Lewis meets Fran, he has to join a troupe of Shakesperean players to win her love. Expect humour, poignancy and at least one big, ugly cry.
The One Day author is back with a wonderfully uplifting tale about first love, family and figuring it all out. Captivating yet soothing, it's a pure joy from start to end.