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Sweet Sorrow review: A quiet, tender testament to first love

David Nicholls, the author of One Day and Us, returns with a bittersweet but comic coming-of-age novel

Sweet Sorrow
Sweet Sorrow
Author: David Nicholls
ISBN-13: 978-1444715408
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Guideline Price: £20

The year 1997 was a seminal year for Great Britain; in just 12 months the nation was rocked by the death of Princess Diana, Titanic was released, the first Harry Potter book was published, Britpop was in full swing and Labour ended 18 years of Conservative government. And yet for Charlie Lewis, the protagonist of David Nicholls fifth novel, Sweet Sorrow, 1997 will be remembered for its life-changing summer when he fell in love with Fran.

A decade after publishing his international bestseller, One Day, and four years since the Booker nominated, Us, Nicholls returns with a bittersweet but comic coming-of-age novel that articulates the poignancy of teenage dreams with great alacrity.

Reports cite the author’s sales across five books as reaching eight million copies in more than 40 languages, but those expecting a high concept romantic tour-de-force akin to One Day may be somewhat wrongfooted by Sweet Sorrow. It is a much quieter affair that captures with great tenderness the extraordinary impact of first love. Charlie’s love story is less cinematic, more indie-movie than Hollywood blockbuster; rather a reflection of the sort of love affairs we find in our own homes, in our own hearts, than are often told. And that is the great brilliance of this work.

In a publishing world where an almighty twist has often become the holy grail for publishers, and the big plot a benchmark for commercial success, Nicholls defies both in a simple story of summer. It is beautifully told with great literary skill that is worn lightly.


Teenage boredom

Charlie Lewis, our 16-year-old narrator, offers us a passenger seat as he negotiates his way towards adulthood without any clear road-map. Coping with a dysfunctional family, the often toxic masculinity of teenage friendships, and being forced to join a drama company to be close to the love of his life, Nicholls expertly evokes the melancholic turbulence of adolescence with heart-breaking accuracy and moments of great hilarity. The price of great love, it seems, is Shakespeare, and the risk of disownment by the group of friends whom, although you may need to outgrow, it’s still hard to walk away from.

There are few novels that capture so well the beautiful misery, the boredom and excitement, the freedom and claustrophobia of teenage years as well as this. As Charlie says, “I longed for change, for something to happen, some adventure, and falling in love seemed more accessible than, say, solving a murder… if I had been busier that summer, or happier at home, then I might not have thought about her so much, but I was neither busy nor happy, and so I fell.”

The book is also, however, a testament to familial love and the bonds that tie siblings together, and parents with their children, even when they chafe. Even when it becomes impossible to communicate with each other. Or when mental illness that cannot be named permeates throughout the home. In fact, especially then. Nicholls delivers light and shade with perfect balance and understands that happy endings don’t always look like we expect them to. And so despite his dread of the future, Charlie’s story reluctantly becomes one of hope.

Witty repartee

One of the great strengths of this novel is the witty repartee that flits back and forth between the characters; it is universally clever, often hilarious, and always pitched perfectly. So much so, that at times Nicholls becomes a victim of his own skill, as when all the characters are so quick-witted, with expert comic timing, it can weaken the overall effect.

Charlie tells us he is the kind of boy you don’t remember in the school photograph. That may be true, however this is the kind of book you will always remember. Not for the epic story, or shocking ending, but for the way it made you feel as you turned the pages and entered a time machine back to your summer at 16. Nicholls said he “wanted to write about youth in an entirely honest way” and hoped “that the reader will turn the pages and think, ‘yes, I remember exactly what that felt like’”. Full of pathos, emotional integrity, and the great hilarity of human beings trying to get along, this tragicomedy achieves this with remarkable skill.

Sweet Sorrow is a testament to first love; if you don’t remember what that felt like, or are still waiting for it to happen, this book is as close to experiencing that awkward, miserable, beautiful thrill as any romantic could hope for.

Helen Cullen

Helen Cullen

Helen Cullen, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and critic