Book Review: Sweet Sorrow

Book Review: Sweet Sorrow

Sweet Sorrow is the new coming-of-age novel from bestselling author David Nicholls, the writer behind bestsellers One Day, Us and Starter For Ten. Here SL contributor Ann-Maria McCarthy delves into the book’s authentic, nostalgic tale and discovers that Nicholls is still capable of breaking her heart…

The Master Of Rom-Com Is Back

Like One Day, Sweet Sorrow spans two decades, focuses on bittersweet romance and is not completely resistant to nostalgia. Its narrator, Charlie Lewis, is looking back on his teenage years, specifically the summer of 1997. Tony Blair and New Labour have just won the general election, Cool Britannia has begun. Meanwhile in a small town in the south-east, Charlie is 16 and unexceptional. His parents have split up. He lives with his father, a depressed hermit who drinks too much. His friends are not particularly sensitive, intelligent or kind. He has no money and he is pretty sure that he has failed his GCSEs. He isn’t going anywhere, until he meets Fran Fisher and the Company. 

The ‘Cult’ Of Theatre Is A Key Theme

The Company is not actually a cult but to the young Charlie, the Full Fathom Five Theatre Co-operative might as well be. They speak in an odd language (Shakespearean), they have strange rituals (movement and improvisation workshops) and display an enthusiasm that could make a sociopath cringe. They are very weird. They are, of course, actors. Nicholls is on familiar ground when he writes about acting and theatre. He trained as an actor before becoming a writer, and used this experience in his earlier novel The Understudy. He enjoys sending up the theatre world, but he does this as someone might mock an old and very dear friend.

It Perfectly Reflects The Intensity Of First Love 

Fran Fisher is beautiful, smart, and funny. Charlie falls in love with her almost immediately. Nicholls brilliantly captures the acute paranoia that accompanies first love. Charlie’s panic around asking Fran out is wonderfully rendered: “Fran Fisher was not the kind of girl you took to the swings in Dog Shit Park, with or without cider. Was it ungentlemanly to offer her cider? An imported lager perhaps, something posh, not a can? Should I put some vodka into a screw-top bottle? Tea or coffee, lager or vodka, bottle or can?”. Fran is a committed member of the Full Fathom Five Theatre Co-operative and she strikes a deal with Charlie: if he joins them, she will consider going on a date with him. And so, begins a glittering theatrical career… almost.

It Will Make You Feel Nostalgic For The 90s

School discos smell of “Cointreau and disinfectant”, teenage boys douse themselves in Lynx, dancefloors are cleared when the DJ puts on ‘2 Become 1’. Hipster coffee shops have not been invented yet, VHS cassettes are not yet obsolete, Countdown is the ultimate in daytime television. With no smartphones around, Charlie is actually able to feel boredom. It definitely feels like a simpler time to the one we live in now. 

It's A Reminder That Becoming, And Being, An Adult Is Messy

The ‘happy ever after’ aspect of storytelling doesn’t seem to appeal to Nicholls. He is so good at looking at what happens when everything doesn’t quite work out, when people make the wrong decision – choosing B instead of A. The older Charlie has regrets, there are things he would do differently: “Even now, more than 20 years later, I think of things I should have said in ’96 or ’97”. I think that honest approach to regret is why Nicholls’ novels are so beloved, and Sweet Sorrow will be no exception; it feels authentic, truthful and real. No other writer breaks my heart and then partially bandages it back together quite like Nicholls does. Sweet Sorrow is an absolute must-read.

Sweet Sorrow is out now. Order here.

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