Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls

Sweet Sorrow David NichollsDavid 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. 


Filed under Books

19 responses to “Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls

  1. I noted that The Matrix anachronism too! Also, there’s a reference to Hobby Lobby, which doesn’t exist in the UK as far as I know. Overall I didn’t enjoy it as much as One Day or Us, but I liked the teenage boy’s perspective and the feeling of nostalgia for one golden summer. The Shakespeare setup works without being too heavyhanded.


  2. Col

    I read it a few weeks ago and enjoyed it without being blown away. The dialogue in places is sharp and very witty – as you say you can see the screenwriter at work throughout. All in all though I thought it did what it set out to – it’s a decent story of teenage romance and first love shot through with some engaging characters, a decent plot and in places that very clever and very funny dialogue. But as you also say, One Day it is not – probably just as well!


  3. I loved Us so was keen to read this, but it sounds a bit more in the mould of One Day (which I liked but found less deep).


  4. Shocking editing there! I heard some of it on R4, but would still read it when the paperback comes out.


  5. I have a couple of his books but haven’t started any since reading One Day which to me was a book with everything…


  6. Haha, I don’t think I’ve ever caught an anachronism like that in a book! I wonder how common they are and if I’ve just not been paying attention.


  7. I know that you do not often read fiction. But I recommend that you look for a new novel by Susan Elliot Wright called The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood. She has written four books in print and has another coming out called What She Lost. SEW writes intelligently and movingly about psychosis, the Cornelia Blackwood book is about postpartum psychosis, which is a real affliction not to be confused with post natal depression. Although the events in the book are more dramatic than might occur in real life, the mind set and emotion of the characters is fully realised. I will be posting on this book and her others, but yours is a blog with a much wider influence. SEW is an important writer, and I am surprised she has not appeared on the Wellcome Book Prize yet.


  8. Fair review. It was a perfect holiday book for me. So much of it was ringing many bells of my own teenage years at that time and being the same age now as adult Charlie and his dad. It was so refreshing to have a book reference teenage sexual encounters without there being a moral in the tale or an imbalance of power. It reminded me so much of my own first fumblings with my then boyfriend (who’s now my husband!), in fact, a lot of the book felt like Nicholls was better at describing my own coming of age than I am. Added to that, I was a keeno in drama and theatre but loathed all the lovey stuff and the humiliating games. It’s not the world’s best book but it’s a lovely novel to nestle into.


  9. This was on the radio and I am waiting for it to come out in paperback for me to give to a friend who loves character driven pieces (eg Sally Rooney or Educated) but struggles with a lot of “character” fiction for feeling too “difficult” or “literary”. It was a very likeable book.


  10. Also I think I preferred it to One Day, punch ending aside, you are right, One Day was more high/low and this was more measured and equable.

    Liked by 1 person

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