There were many clever things about David Nicholls’ globally loved One Day (2009) but the most fundamental of them was the basic idea to take a single day spread over a number of years and through it to chart an unresolved relationship.
Sweet Sorrow has a similarly smart core: write a teenage love story and base it on the most famous of all teenage love stories, Romeo And Juliet. From the title, Shakespeare’s tragic play of teenage passion is at the heart and core of this touching and engrossing book.
At first introduction, Charlie Lewis is not an obvious Romeo. A pupil at Merton Grange secondary school, Charlie is about to leave at 16 and find a dead-end job, in large part because he has flunked his exams.
This is partly attributable to his domestic situation. His father’s business has collapsed in debt. His mother has left, taking with her Charlie’s sister Billie.
Charlie’s father, a frustrated jazz musician, is clinically depressed after the enforced closure of his record shop. He and Charlie exist on a repulsive diet of cold takeaways and sink into general household squalor.
Fran Fisher is a more promising Juliet. Middle-class, private school educated, smart, pretty, quick-witted and a little more worldly than Charlie, she almost literally falls over him when he is quietly reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (“chosen because it had ‘slaughter’ in the title”) in a secluded spot on the grounds of Fawley Manor.
The house and gardens are owned by a couple of old thespians who have invited the Full Fathom Five theatre company to recruit young local actors and stage a production of Romeo And Juliet in which Fran will play... Juliet. Neat, huh? And, yes, cheesy.
One of the hugely appealing and insightful things about Shakespeare’s play is that we are given no explanation for why the protagonists fall in love. They simply do. They see each other and are smitten. And so it proves with Charlie. Fran forges a deal. The company needs someone to play the part of Benvolio. If Charlie joins the company for a week, he can take her out for coffee or a meal at the end of it. He is sufficiently besotted to accept the challenge.
Nicholls has by this time done a very good job of making it clear to the reader that Charlie is not a natural. His social life consists pretty much of being part of a small gang of macho boys who mock anything and everybody, drink far too much, play stupid pranks and generally make a nuisance of themselves as only teenage boys can. When he first reads the part of Benvolio he is wholly out of his depth and hopeless. But with Fran as his teacher and prize, he perseveres.
Nicholls is a comic writer but not a cruel one and the scenes with the Full Fathom Five theatre company are affectionately mocking, from the ludicrous warm-ups to the slightly pretentious directorial “interpretations” of the play, all in readiness for what we know in our hearts will be a fairly gruesome performance.
But Nicholls, a not very successful ex-actor himself, is also wise enough to recognise that for those on the inside of a theatre performance, it can be a transformative experience – especially when you are 16. And for Charlie it is particularly so as he struggles with the language, his self-confidence and his battle to come out from behind the cynical front he has created in self-defence against a cruel world.
Nicholls’ insight into Shakespeare’s play is that very little of it is actually about being in love, only “a pamphlet almost, the brief interlude between anticipation and despair”. The play takes place over four days and the protagonists spend just one night together. Fran and Charlie manage more than that but we know from numerous hints that their love is ultimately doomed.
But we also know that the love from this single summer will linger forever in their lives, even as their paths diverge.
As well as being a skilled novelist, Nicholls is also a highly rated scriptwriter. He has an excellent ear for dialogue and a very sharp eye for the telling detail. At his very first meeting with Fran, Charlie comments “one of my smaller prejudices was a suspicion and resentment of people with very good teeth; all that health and vigour seemed like a kind of showing off. This girl’s teeth, I noticed, were saved from perfection by a chip on her left front tooth, like the folded corner of a page”.
I very much enjoyed Sweet Sorrow. Yes, Nicholls is open to accusations of nostalgia and sentimentality and he treads a fine line with both. But as well as being a moving love story, this is also a book about art and its transformative power. Sweet Sorrow oozes insight and charm, humour, tenderness and warmth – and I will forgive it almost anything for that.
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Oozes insight and charm, humour, tenderness and warmth.
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