Charlie Lewis is 16 years old. He’s at school somewhere in the south of England and has just finished his GCSEs – though it would be better to say he got them over with. His parents have split up, and he has been living with his depressed dad while his mum has gone off to make a new life for herself, taking his younger sister, Billie, with her. It’s the mid-1990s: there’s no SnapChat, no WhatsApp, just days and days riding his bike around suburban cul-de-sacs, their names (Tennyson, Mary Shelley, Forster, Kipling, Woolf and Hardy) marking them out firmly as the territory of a David Nicholls novel. Charlie is looking, he tells us from the vantage point of his adult self, “for some great change; a quest, perhaps, an adventure, with trials undergone and lessons learnt”.
Handily, a few pages later, we have the beginning of that adventure: a meet-cute with a girl who literally falls down before him as he lies smoking and reading Slaughterhouse-Five in the greenwood. Fran Fisher, it turns out, is rehearsing a student production of Romeo and Juliet with something called the Full Fathom Five Theatre Co-operative. Will Charlie join their merry band? Will there be trials undergone and lessons learnt? Well, what do you think?
This is, in part, the problem with Sweet Sorrow. Like Nicholls’s breakout big hit One Day, it is a Bildungsroman with a breezy literary bent. One Day draws on Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Nicholls had adapted the novel for the screen the year before his own book was published); here, we have a bit of Shakespeare, the story of his two doomed young lovers an undercurrent beneath the text.
It feels, however, as if Nicholls is playing it safe. There’s nothing exactly wrong with this novel, and Nicholls has such a fluid style you can’t object to spending time in the company of his characters. But the book never achieves lift-off: there isn’t enough at stake. Nicholls is aware he’s got a bit of a problem on his hands. “Love is boring,” the older Charlie notes as he looks back on his summer romance with Fran. “Love is familiar and commonplace for anyone not taking part, and first love is just a gangling, glandular incarnation of the same.”
Charlie and Fran, alas, never rise above the commonplace. Charlie’s a nice enough kid; Fran is pretty much a blank canvas. She’s clever, and she seems to draw cleverness out of Charlie, but in a way that often feels too much like an out-take of When Harry Met Sally than the way two British teenagers might actually talk.
The novel is full of missed opportunities: particularly when it comes to Charlie’s situation at home. His father – who dreamt of being a jazz musician – owns a small chain of record shops; too bad that the mid-1990s is just the time when owning a small chain of record shops became a pretty poor business proposition. Bankruptcy follows, his wife walks out, he spends his days lying on the sofa drinking and smoking and taking prescription drugs. But while Charlie isn’t happy at home, he still comes across as basically OK. He’s got a nice teacher at school, who encourages him even when he does badly in his exams; his boss at the petrol station is so kind to him in the circumstances, it frankly beggars belief.
Sure, bad stuff happens, but not enough of it to heighten the book’s tension. Charlie is angry at his mother for leaving: but not convincingly so. And his mother, like Fran, is little more than a cipher, a trope of an energetic and efficient woman who has had enough of her gloomy husband and finds herself a new man and a job at a golf club. She doesn’t even really notice when her son appears to attempt suicide – but then the reader can’t take this attempt seriously either, since it’s passed over in barely a paragraph and referred to as “a blatant performance”.
In the end, Sweet Sorrow offers consolation of a peculiarly anodyne kind. But the consolation of art must be bolder and more brutal. Hardy knew it; Shakespeare knew it; and Nicholls knows it too. Perhaps we’ll find it in his next novel, but it can’t be found here.
Hodder & Stoughton, 416pp, £20
This article appears in the 24 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation