Take a copy of Romeo and Juliet and rip out only the pages where the lovers are happy together: It’s a pamphlet. “The brief interlude between anticipation and despair” is a bit dry when it comes to dramatic possibilities, observes the English novelist David Nicholls. The private jokes, the confessions of vulnerability, the moon-eyed chitchat about hopes and dreams . . . a little of that is still probably too much. “If Shakespeare ever did write the scenes where the lovers talk about their favorite food . . . or earnestly explain the lyrics of their favorite songs, then he was right to exclude them from the second draft,” Nicholls writes in Sweet Sorrow, whose title phrase first appeared in the play.
“Sweet Sorrow” is a fair two-word summary of Nicholls’s work as a novelist: five volumes in 17 years, all of which are very funny, exquisitely attuned to human feelings, and at times unbearably sad. They’re romcoms, and I love them all. After getting through the major turn in a love story that ranges across a lifetime, One Day (2009), I had to go out and stagger around the block a few times. My wife mocked me for this, until she read the book and had her own small breakdown. The film version, with Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess, wasn’t very good, but the 2006 movie of Nicholls’s college novel Starter for Ten (2003), with James McAvoy and Rebecca Hall, was a fair re-creation of the book, albeit not as funny. Us (2014), Nicholls’s heaviest novel, is a crushingly detailed and completely believable breakdown of every excruciating incident in how a father and his college-age son grow apart; it’s being filmed for a BBC series. Why no one has filmed The Understudy (2005) I have no idea; it’s a hilarious theater novel about a journeyman actor named Stephen McQueen who specializes in playing corpses and is forever plagued by the success of the man he understudies on stage, the twelfth-sexiest man alive.
Nicholls is a brilliant comedy writer who does twang at the heartstrings, but the oddly dismissive term “tear-jerker” became popular, I think, out of the unnecessary sense of shame that seems to apply uniquely to emotionally fulfilling works; make us cry and our follow-up reaction is annoyance that we’ve been tricked into sympathy for nonexistent people. But is it not the purpose of art to make us feel something? We don’t call comedies “laugh-jerkers” or action movies “thrill-jerkers.” It’s only the sorrow that makes us want to lash out at whoever conned us. Another way of describing Nicholls’s work is that it’s honest about emotions, from delirium to its opposite. Run the other way if you like, but you’re running from experiences that are central to our humanity.
You may be relieved to hear that Sweet Sorrow, unlike R and J, has no tragic elements. It limits itself merely to considering, with exquisite good humor and tenderness, something we’ve all been through: first love. Embarrassing, trying, and funny as it may be, going through it makes us better people, and from the vantage point of middle age, Nicholls’s narrator, who found a lifelong mate in someone else, looks back on his teenage coup de foudre with awe and gratitude.
The novel toggles back and forth from middle-aged contentment in the 2010s to the 1990s, when Charlie Lewis is an aimless 16-year-old boy whose parents have split, leaving him living with his depressed, unemployed failure of a dad while his sister moves in with their mom, a brisk professional who has moved on to better things. Equally disgusted by and worried about his father, who has crawled into a bottle of whiskey and can’t find his way out, Charlie lets his grades slip and takes any excuse to get away from home. Between shifts at a gas station, he spends his leisure time on larkish evenings of drinking, taunting, and fighting with his mates, whose gatherings are a free-for-all of savagery punctuated with cruel laughter. Any mention of this dynamic is out of bounds according to lad codes: “Don’t you think it’s weird?” Charlie asks one friend. “All the name-calling and jokes and stuff? I mean, when it’s someone’s birthday, shouldn’t you, I don’t know, buy them a present rather than nick their trousers and set fire to them?” Reply: “I think this conversation is weird.”
On a solitary bike ride one afternoon, Charlie meets a beguiling girl named Fran, who says the only way she’ll see him again is if he joins her summer theater troupe, which is about to begin rehearsals on Romeo and Juliet. A happy-clappy company of incorrigibly earnest theater dweebs? For a lager-swilling bloke like Charlie, the proposition is as alien as going to the pub in a tutu. But Fran is sarcastic and sly and amazing, and soon Charlie finds himself memorizing the part of Benvolio, getting a dual education in the Bard and something else. “Being in love,” he reflects, “was like being pushed out into a spotlight on the stage.”
As in any other love story, the happy-and-together part is brief, but Nicholls writes about it with so much passion that the book is bound to shake loose some memories of your own first folly. Charlie’s stumbling hike to adulthood, strewn with strange and terrible humiliations but also smoothed by surprising occasional insights derived from Shakespeare, is charming and satisfying. As in Nicholls’s other books, Sweet Sorrow draws on a deep emotional well to create a powerful appreciation of the things that matter most. All of this would be far too sticky if it weren’t for Nicholls’s light touch: First love, Fran points out, is like “a stupid pop song that you hear and you think, well . . . clearly the greatest piece of music ever written, I need nothing else.” Years go by and the song comes to seem embarrassing because “we’re too . . . sophisticated.” But “when it comes on the radio, well, it’s still a good song.” So it is, and all praise to Nicholls for so expertly conjuring up those fleeting, maddening, invaluable exhilarations of youth.