Before I begin this review, I just want to say that I hope everyone is staying safe (and sane) in this crazy time. I wanted to talk about one of my favourite books that I read last year, just to escape the current situation!
David Nicholls’ Sweet Sorrow is a story about first love. But it is not just that. It features all kinds of love – familial, friendship, romantic. The novel has a perfect balance between telling the tale of first love and that of the rest of your life. After all, your first love is only named that because it is the first, not the last, otherwise it would just be simply ‘love’. Sweet Sorrow transports us back to 1997, during the summer after 16-year-old Charlie Lewis has most probably flunked his GCSE exams. Life for Charlie is complicated; living at home with his depressed father after his parents’ divorce, and feeling like the future has little to offer him. However, Charlie soon meets a girl, Fran Fisher, and begins to fall head over heels. Yet there’s a catch – he must join the theatre company that Fran is in to be able to see her regularly. This catapults Charlie into a world of art and friendship like nothing he has ever encountered before. The tale of this summer is told retrospectively, from the perspective of adult Charlie who is about to get married, merging the catastrophes of teenagehood and the survival at the other side.
Utilising a retrospective narration was the best choice for the book. This is what makes this novel differ from other, similar novels. Nicholls can do both – he shows the cataclysmic nature of teenage life – how literally just one summer can feel quite life-changing. Yet he simultaneously shows how these catastrophic events – heartbreak, embarrassment, arguments – soon fade away, leaving only memories to carry into adulthood. This use of almost two narrators (the child Charlie and adult Charlie feel completely different) is an attractive prospect for any age of reader. This is by no means a teens-only book, this is universal – a story of love. The universality also arises from the experience of being a teenager, whether a recent experience or one that seems a lifetime ago. I feel like the true experience of being young fails many people, being often romanticised, belittled, or plainly forgotten. However, Nicholls strives to make us remember how deeply everything felt – the first time you felt embarrassment, the first time you had a crush, the first time you did something stupid – all universal feelings, regardless of age.
I was lucky enough to attend (and review) Nicholls’ event at Durham Book Festival last year, and he completely captured the essence of his book. Nicholls stated that at 16 “your nerve endings are more alive” – you are more receptive to everything because it is your first ever experience of such feelings. Nicholls also illuminated the importance of performance in the novel, not only in terms of the literal performance of Romeo and Juliet, but also the theatricality of life. We all put on a performance when meeting new people, and in the height of youth, when we are just figuring out our own identity, this is most prevalent.
Nicholls has the most beautiful writing style – long, swirling sentences that manage to perfectly encapsulate feelings that you would never be able to explain yourself. His writing shows emotions and reflects them onto us. He causes second-hand embarrassment and great feelings of sorrow. There were so many beautiful chapters of the book, I wish I could name them all. However, my particular favourite was one titled ‘love’. In this chapter, adult Charlie reflects onto his relationship with Fran, explaining that this first love was no different than any other, and how we romanticise moments of love and tend to ignore the part where they picked each other’s belly buttons.
This novel was a true delight to read, a perfect representation of what it is to be young, and how completely all-consumed you are by your own life events. Parting with this story really was such sweet sorrow.
‘The ‘love’ in ‘love at first sight’ is, I suspect, only applied in retrospect, laid on like an orchestral score when the outcome of the story is known and the looks and smiles and hands brushing against each other can be allocated a significance tar thy rarely carry in the moment’
‘Take a copy of the world’s most famous love story and pinch between finger and thumb the pages where the lovers are truly happy’
‘The brief interlude between anticipation and despair’
‘The brief, blinding explosion of first love that can only be looked at directly once it has burned out’
‘The state of being in love is like listening to someone describe their parachute jump… the blurred photograph of a life changing performance, taken from too far away’