It must be rather lovely to be David Nicholls at the moment. A recent winner of a BAFTA for his skilful and compassionate adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels into a memorable miniseries, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the witty yet tormented Melrose, Nicholls is one of those rare writers who has managed to succeed both in the novel form and in film and television adaptation. With his fifth novel, Sweet Sorrow, recently published to accolades and acclaim, there seems no reason not to expect the commercial success that he found initially with Starter for Ten, and then to an even greater degree with One Day, to continue. And he’s the most charming, modest and self-deprecating of men as well, which means that his enormous good fortune is hard to resent.
Nonetheless, Sweet Sorrow encapsulates Nicholls at his best, and his worst. He suggests at the end of the book that the “mood and tone” are somewhat indebted to the Pulp song “David’s Last Summer”, a mostly spoken-word account of teenage summer parties and small-town summer romance, and in some regards his novel is that seven-minute song stretched into a near-400 page novel. Still, it never feels distended or overlong; rarely a page goes by without a witty one-liner or memorable observation.
His protagonist Charlie Lewis is another one of the unexceptional everymen that Nicholls writes so well, a boy who describes himself as “a vaguely familiar face in the middle row, someone with no anecdotes or associations, scandals or triumphs to their name”. He is about to leave secondary school in the summer of 1997; his exams have been messed up, his future looks unclear and his parents have separated. He has drawn the short straw and is living with his depressed father, a former jazz musician whose life has gone very wrong indeed, and Charlie works a dead-end job in the local petrol station, where he is engaging in low-level fraud with his best friend Harper. All seems hopeless, until he meets the bright, charismatic Fran Fisher, and he finds himself trapped in every schoolboy’s nightmare: performing amateur Shakespeare in order to get closer to her.
Sweet Sorrow starts extremely well, with a beautifully evoked and hilariously awful last school disco of term, and Nicholls displays his usual flair for comedy and poignancy throughout. As with his previous book, Us, he also introduces elements of mystery and menace to great effect; what has Charlie done for some anonymous schoolmate to write, on the bottom of his school shirt, “u made me cry”, and why is his father barely able to surface from his bedroom? He also writes dialogue superbly, presumably a result of his alternative career as a screenwriter; page after page is filled with the kind of sparkling interplay between characters that feels hugely enjoyable to read. Few will finish this book without a sense of having been thoroughly entertained.
There is also the likelihood, once the pleasure has worn off, of a sense of disappointment creeping in. For better or worse, the book frequently feels like an assortment of tropes, situations and characters from his earlier novels, specifically Starter for Ten, but with most of the others thrown in as well. Thus his weakest book, The Understudy, has its theme of a failed actor recycled in Charlie’s struggles to take on the role of Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, and the central father-son relationship appears virtually everywhere in Nicholls’ work in some form, including his adaptations of Patrick Melrose and Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father? The sudden time-jumps, disconcerting the reader with previously unknown information, come from One Day and Melrose; a doomed relationship between a free-spirited woman and a more conservative man is recycled from Us. Even some of the minor characters, such as the cynical, smart Helen Beavis, the handsome but vacuous Harper and the uptight Lucy Tran, are simply versions of earlier Nicholls creations, namely Rebecca Epstein, Spencer and Lucy Chang from Starter for Ten. And even the dialogue, beautifully written and witty though it is, starts to seem odd; for an unexceptional, sullen teenager, Charlie is soon spouting too many witticisms and apercus in conversation.
Still, their inclusion offers an almost comforting sense of familiarity; if one takes Nicholls’ writing as representing a midway point between Richard Curtis and Graham Greene, for instance, nobody would complain too vociferously that Curtis creates middle-class idylls full of loveably swearing public school types, nor that Greene’s protagonists are invariably so wracked with Catholic guilt that one imagines that they are forced to say three Hail Marys before they can tie up their shoelaces in the morning.
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Nicholls, like his precursor Nick Hornby, has an instantly accessible and readable style that means that his thoroughly enjoyable books sell in their millions, and there is no reason why Sweet Sorrow will not be this summer’s big bestseller. Yet there is nothing here as daring or memorable as the sudden, random death of Emma in One Day, and by the time that Nicholls’ twenty-years-later coda comes around, even the most indulgent of his admirers might be wishing for a touch more grit and genuine pain amid the jokes and Shakespearean allusions. Reading this certainly isn’t sorrowful, but a little more sourness to balance the sweetness would have worked wonders.