If populist politics is the art of confirming prejudices, popular fiction shares something of that quality—giving us what we want, showing us what we already know. David Nicholls, author of the hit romance One Day and lots and lots of TV scripts, is Britain’s current on-form male author in this competitive field.
Where his last (also bestselling) Man Booker longlisted book, Us, followed a divorce-bound middle-aged couple on a last holiday, Sweet Sorrow goes back to school to explore first love, the bewildering rush of hormones, hope and self-analysis that assails us in our late teens. Narrator Charlie Lewis says he’s the boy no one notices in the school photograph, “someone with no anecdotes or associations, scandals or triumphs to their name.” He’s a C-minus comprehensive lad, about to leave school, aimless and bereft of aspiration.
The object of his desire is Fran—or Frances—Fisher. She’s beautiful and bright enough to pretend she’s world-weary—as well as being a lot posher. If the class difference isn’t insurmountable, Charlie must still confront the challenge of meeting her again—which involves joining a theatre group, whence the Shakespearean title and, if you hadn’t already guessed, a folio’s-worth of Romeo and Juliet allusions. Nicholls throws into the mix an acrimonious separation, a dad’s depression, a grim but never gritty Home Counties setting and the socio-political mood of the late 1990s, when things could only get better.
The novel is a witty, wise, quietly literary page-turner, full of “it was just like that” scenes that will prompt sly grimaces of recognition. If there’s inevitably a degree of stereotyping (the unshaven “cool” teacher, gin-slaking golfers), Nicholls’s observations of Charlie finding his way in the grey worlds of work and adulthood transform this feel-good comedy into something sadder and even tragic.
Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton, £20)