So in my last review I discussed how overhyped and slightly disappointing I’d found The Last by Hanna Jameson. And I’m afraid I was left with much the same feeling about Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls. And despite the vast differences in the genre of these two novels they do have a great deal in common.
Firstly you can’t have failed to see their ready for Instagram covers populating your feed if you’re a #bookstagrammer (and probably even if you aren’t) or to have seen displays of each in your local bookshop.
So both had a lot of exposure. Secondly, both seemed to have garnered a huge amount of critical acclaim which equaled the promotional noise they were released to.
These circumstances seem, to my mind, to have set them both up to if not fail, slightly disappoint, because that is a lot for any novel to live up to.
Sweet Sorrow is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bad book. It’s an enjoyable enough read. It’s not taxing or difficult to comprehend. In fact it has all of the warmth and subtle pleasure of the English summer it depicts. It is gentle with likable, relatable and incredibly well drawn characters (in fact the characters and their interactions are the standout feature of this novel).
Nicholls transports the reader back to the summer of 1997 where Charlie, having most likely failed his GCSEs due to family drama, comes to the rescue of Fran who is taking part in an ambitious production of Romeo and Juliet put on by an equally ambitious pair of young actors at a manor house.
Enamoured by Fran, Charlie attends rehearsals, but only for one week, after which Fran promises to go on a date with him. Only, of course, he stays much longer, gets the girl and learns a few things about himself in the meantime.
This is my first David Nicholls book but I understand from reading various reviews that this nostalgia is a plot path well travelled in his other novels. It is enjoyable and adds another dimension to this novel about teenage love (and lust). There is something almost saddening in reading Charlie and Fran’s romance unfold as, with the cynicism which growing older gifts us, you know that they cannot last and they are as fated as Romeo and Juliet.
As if our summer together was a coastline succumbing to the waves ….”
I have to mention Nicholls ability to so perfectly capture that pivotal moment in adolescence as you finish school and move into further education or into the world of work. Fantasies and best laid plans in front of you. Again there is nostalgia in this, amped up by a clever play on chronology and Charlie’s own telling which – aided by hindsight – is touched with humour and regret. Much as I suppose we would, and do, when looking back at important phases in our lives.
Brave too is the choice to not give Charlie, nor Fran, a fairytale ending. This makes this story far more credible, something which the dialogue between the characters hampers (I’ve yet to come across a teenager as eloquent as any of the cast of this book) and the seeming ease with which well established social groups manage to merge.
So to summarise this is a pleasant enough read, but not in this reviewer’s opinion the piece of great modern literature it was hailed to be.