David Nicholls’ fifth novel ‘Sweet Sorrow’ is set during the summer of 1997. Charlie Lewis is waiting for his GCSE results, living with his depressed father and working at a petrol station. In a chance encounter on a bike ride, he becomes a member of the Full Fathom Five amateur theatre company and lands the role of Benvolio in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Charlie falls for Fran Fisher, the girl playing Juliet, but just like Shakespeare’s famous play, there is plenty of foreshadowing that their happiness will not last long.
Charlie and Fran fit what appears to be the general mould of relatable lead characters in Nicholls’ novels – Charlie describes himself as having no special talents and very little confidence, and Fran is the sparky, witty girl who educates him in the ways of the world. Nicholls puts a contemporary social class spin on the Montague/Capulet divide with Charlie being all too aware that Fran is from a well-off background and went to the posh school on the other side of town. The dialogue is snappy, showing Nicholls’ talents as a screenwriter as well as a novelist, and his early career as an actor has provided authentic material for the behind the scenes atmosphere of amateur theatre productions and improv sessions.
In terms of the depiction of the era, there are a few anachronisms in one of the middle chapters which I am surprised didn’t get picked up by editors before publication. DVDs were not available in Europe in 1997 let alone a common item in average UK households, ‘The Matrix’ wasn’t released until 1999 and Charlie and his friends wouldn’t have been referencing Tiger Woods’ extramarital affairs as part of their banter unless they all knew something the rest of us didn’t at the time. Quibbles about specific period details aside, Nicholls conveys a deep sense of nostalgia for the past in all its bittersweetness with Charlie narrating the story twenty years later, looking back on events as he anticipates the company’s planned reunion.
‘Sweet Sorrow’ is an apt title for a whimsical story about the nostalgia of first love which avoids descending into schmaltz and sentimentality thanks to Nicholls’ droll and dry observations about teenage life, love and lust. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of ‘One Day’, but perhaps that will be a relief for anyone still reeling from the gut punch of that ending.