Sweet Survivor by David Nicholls: Masterfully captures all the complexities of the adolescent romance

Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan, Marlon James – 2019 is already packed to the rafters with highly anticipated book releases deemed the “publishing event of the year”. Yet even in this exalted and crowded collective, there is something especially breathless in the way that David Nicholls’ fifth novel is being awaited by fans.

It’s been five years since the release of the Booker longlisted Us; 10 since the release of his grand oeuvre One Day. In between, he has made admirable strides as a screenwriter, most recently for Patrick Melrose, the series adapted from the novel series by Edward St Aubyn.

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Nicholls has always brought the mentality of a screenwriter to his novels. There’s often an admirable tautness to the plot; the relatable underdog characters fleshed out and formed, yet still somehow ordinary and relatable. There’s an affable, believable cadence to the dialogue. And Nicholls is the maestro of the plot twist: anyone who had the pleasure of reading One Day without realising What Happens Next will barely forget the moment they read the fate of Emma Morley, retreading the few pages before it for the psychological amuse-bouche that simply wasn’t there. Expectations, in a word, have been high for Sweet Sorrow.

Like David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green and Joe Dunthorne’s Submarine before him, Nicholls places Sweet Sorrow in the relatively unremarkable terrain of the smalltown British schoolyard of yesteryear. It’s a vista of school discos, rivalries and dog sh** parks, albeit one with a pinch of Nicholls’ stardust.

Charlie Lewis is in his thirties and about to get married when he casts a backward glance to the summer that changed everything. In it, he is 16, and on course to leave school not with a bang but with a whimper. He is outrageously mediocre; socially, physically, academically. With his parents’ marriage on the slide, Charlie is also looking after his mentally ailing dad at home, at an age when he could use some fatherly guidance himself. Nicholls has already explored the richness of the father-son relationship to impressive effect in Us, and so it goes in Sweet Sorrow, too.

Into this pedestrian non-event of a summer a bit of sparkle must fall, and so it does with the arrival of Fran Fisher, a pupil from Chatsbourne, the posher school down the road. She is part of the Company; a group of students who put on Shakespeare productions.

Charlie, caught up in a lustful riptide, soon finds himself in deeper waters than he might care for: playing the minor part of Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet. No prizes for guessing which role Fran is playing. Charlie is out of his comfort zone and barely recognisable to himself, navigating his way through rehearsals (and a brilliantly written actor warm-up session) but it’s a small price to pay to get close to Fran. In the meantime, Charlie takes a job in a local garage, which winds up having a bearing on his fledgling romance with Fran.

For writers, the queasy familiarity of adolescence is too easy a device to rely on; a real low-hanging fruit. Sweet Sorrow’s terrain is familiar to the point of careworn, but somehow this doesn’t matter one bit. Nicholls has managed to masterfully capture the tenderness, the bravado, the exaltation and the embarrassment of first love. There is a slight issue with plot pacing, and things gather pace as the book progresses.

Yet Nicholls’ style is so amiable that it’s a forgiveable quibble. He has a nose for empathy and emotional eloquence, even when his characters are at their most outlandish or misguided. There are moments of awfulness for Charlie that will ensure a catch in the throat for the reader, yet many of them are sugared with humour. This, ultimately, is Nicholls’ trump card – his ability to wrench the emotions hither and thither.

Sweet Sorrow is already being touted as the feel-good hit of the summer, but there’s plenty more in there than just a companionable beach read. The book more than holds its own amid the year’s other publishing titans; to festoon it with superlatives like ‘book of the year’ maybe wouldn’t be without merit.

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