Disaffected teenager Charlie Lewis is finessed into joining a summer holiday drama camp by a girl he meets by chance. She is beautiful, clever and well-read; he can’t act, has zero ambition and is only there because he fancies her. Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls is a pitch-perfect, delicately choreographed love story that will make you laugh and cry and wish you were young again – and then be glad you’re not.
Charlie Lewis is the kind of kid who bunks off lessons and finds fart jokes hilarious. His nickname is ‘Nobody’ and he admits that he ‘neither conformed nor rebelled, collaborated nor resisted; I stayed out of trouble without getting into anything else’. Charlie and his group of slightly thuggish mates have just finished their GCSEs and are waiting out the long summer with not much to do other than try to get served in pubs and trade insults with each other.
It is the late 90s and Charlie has a cash-in-hand job at the local petrol station where he finds creative ways to supplement his meagre income. Cycling home from work one day he comes upon a girl from the other side of the tracks – the posh side – who introduces him to a social enterprise am dram theatre group run by two intense and serious thesps whose aim is to change young lives with the Shakespeare experience.
‘Join us!’ cajoles the captivating girl, Frances Fisher. The idea is horrifying to Charlie, but very reluctantly he is gradually drawn in: by the enthusiasm of the mixed (in age and ability) group of actors, his growing crush on Fran, the passion of the director, and – eventually – the timeless power of the language. Fran, naturally, plays Juliet. Charlie on the other hand is given a part perfect for him:
With no good jokes, no family, no love life, he seemed to bore or irritate everyone he spoke to … Benvolio was a sidekick, a conformist and an observer. Amazing, really, that people I barely knew had cast me so well.
Their archetypal summer romance flourishes, made all the sweeter by the parallels played out alongside them. There are Shakespearean echoes to be found everywhere but they are never mawkishly or sentimentally done and somehow Nicholls manages to make this love story feel as fresh and new and meaningful as any, and the fact that it related by the middle-aged Charlie reminds the reader that this is a nostalgic look back at one golden summer.
It’s a neat device, to weave a real-life romance around the greatest love story ever told, and although it’s not a new one Nicholls layers it with whip-smart observations on the tedium of small town English life, the confusions of adolescence, the love-hate relationship with parents, the simultaneous desire to grow up and stay young, and the transformative power of friendship. He is particularly strong on the distress of family breakdown and the role-reversal of children becoming their parents’ carers (or ‘resenters’, as he puts it). There is a great deal of witty dialogue and humorous asides here too – particularly in relation to cringe-inducing theatrical activities:
Get into pairs!’ shouted Ivor, three words that always caused a wave of panic, heightened by the necessity of showing no panic.
If you found Us disappointing as I did, this is Nicholls back on form. It is marketed as a summer read, but it’s much more than that.
Although the text is called Romeo and Juliet, it’s really about everyone in this world. We’ve all got these great passions, these amazing private stories. There is no such thing as a minor character.
Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls is published by Hodder & Stoughton, 416 pages.