Taken back to being 16: A review of Sweet Sorrow

My teenage years were a cacophony of MSN bleeps, slammed doors and piteously miserable music. They were a haze of impending heartbreak, stifling shyness and desperate loneliness. Every emotion twanged tighter and hit harder than at any other age: crushes weren’t crushes, they were all-or-nothing love affairs; friends felt like sisters and fallouts were nuclear; parents were cried on, argued with, or surprised by. 

David Nicholls brings all of this to Sweet Sorrow, but makes it more lucid, more vivid than it felt at the time. Reading Sweet Sorrow was like slipping into a bath of faded memories, and single sentences would catapult you back to that time in your life, every emotion and situation sharpened, heightened. 

Set during the cavernous gap between GCSEs finishing and the future starting, Sweet Sorrow tells a story that I found instantly relatable. The peeling-off of friends, the weight of result’s day hanging over your head, the monotonous days, and the frantic need to make memories.

“That’s why summer’s so sad – because you’re meant to be so happy.”

I won’t go into the plot – you can read that here – but to surmise: Charlie has flunked his GCSEs, his mates have all but disappeared, his mum and sister have moved out, and he’s left alone with his bankrupt, depressed dad. A theatre company putting on Romeo and Juliet is his unlikely saviour, mainly thanks to Fran, a girl from the local independent school. Love, sex, drugs, parties, life all happen. But this isn’t a cheesy romance. This isn’t real-life Romeo falls in love with real-life Juliet. No one dies at the end. Instead, it’s a bittersweet tale of teenage love and growing up, wrapped up in an exquisite blanket of melancholia. 

“Unmentioned but also unforgotten”

“The beginning and the end, the anticipation and despair, that’s where the story lies, but the state of being in love, and in particular of being young and in love, is like listening to someone describe their parachute jump or their bizarre dream, the blurred photograph of a life-changing performance, taken from too far away.”

We know Nicholls can write about love. But in Sweet Sorrow, we see a different kind of love: the young, teenage type, The language – the way he describes falling in love, out of love, the nerves, the humiliation – is the literary equivalent of macaroni cheese. It’s warming, soothing, slightly cheesy (but only in a way that makes your heart sing). 

Nicholls has this ability to hone in on an emotion or an experience, and describe it in a way that no one has done before. Yet he makes it sound absolutely spot-on, like ‘yes, YES, thank you, you’ve given that feeling a name, you’ve put that emotion into words’. There’s no cliches, no lazy sentiments. It’s fresh and modern and thick with meaning.

“Assume that we never wanted to be anywhere else, or with anyone else, that time apart was time wasted and that it was impossible to imagine the circumstances when we might not feel this way.”

Young love is the centrepiece of Sweet Sorrow, and I challenge any reader to make it through this book without thinking of their teenage relationships. Nicholls describes the pain, love, lust, confusion, nerves with his usual wit and observant eye. And he leaves the rose-tinted glasses behind. Teenage love may think it’s the be-all and end-all, but Nicholls reminds it that it’s a passing phase, a flare doomed to burn bright and fizzle out. 

The dual-timescales both enhance and diminish young love. The use of the past tense, as well as skips to the present day, remind us that while love may seem all-consuming when you’re 16, it’s little more than a fond memory in a few years. 

“So best to assume that when we were alone and we weren’t talking, then we were kissing or fooling around, and that this was all amazing, so much so that I couldn’t comprehend why grown-ups weren’t doing it all the time, something, I suppose, that we spend the rest of our lives discovering.”

You’re not a kid anymore

It’s not just boyfriends and girlfriends that Nicholls is so adept at writing. It’s relationships with friends and parents too. 

Scenes between Charlie and his mum and Charlie and his dad tear your heart in two. Charlie’s mum leaves him and his dad behind, and as I read this, I knew I was reading it from Charlie’s perspective, and through my own teenage eyes. I couldn’t bear the unjustness of it, the unfairness. I really had to force myself to see her as an adult and read it through my 28-year-old eyes: she’s an adult woman who deserves happiness, not life as a carer. 

Likewise, Charlie’s dad. Jeeesh. Depression is mentioned in anything but the word, and Nicholls describes his scenes with the most heartbreaking sensitivity. From fruit left to rot to pills on the sink to nicknames given by Charlie’s friends – my heart just broke. 

Charlie’s original group of friends, the three lads, are reminiscent of so many school friendships. They were friends who if you didn’t see every day, your life may as well be over. That if you’re not a gang til the end of days, then what’s the point? But as each second, minute, day passes, they live more comfortably in your nostalgia than they do in awkward catch-ups and strained texts.

“How does Shakespeare know?”

One thing I adored was how Charlie’s attitude to Shakespeare changed. He started off confused, embarrassed and unsure, but this soon changes once he has Fran guiding him. 

…misadventured piteous overthrows
Three random words that might as well have been ‘pig umbrella satellite’.”

‘For in a minute there are many days,’ says Juliet, who, I’d come to realise, had all the best and truest lines. It was one of those moments in the play where I’d think how does Shakespeare know?”

Charlie doesn’t get Shakespeare; he doesn’t want to get Shakespeare. It’s not cool, what would his mates think? But as he starts to drift away from the laddish gang – and as he starts to feel what the words mean – his attitude changes. 

I love Shakespeare. I studied him throughout school, college and uni. But I get why people get scared or bored or apprehensive or confused by him. His work isn’t meant to be read silently and dashed through for essay marks. It’s made to be watched, spoken, acted. I was lucky to have teachers who made us act scenes out and encouraged us to watch films and go to the theatre. But without this; it’s no wonder that so many kids are alienated from him.

Final thoughts?

Sweet Sorrow is a glorious read. It’s quick, but you’ll slow down to savour the language. It’s easy, but exquisitely painful scenes will drag your own memories back up. It’s laugh-out-loud funny – Charlie’s first time taking E had me giggling and reading it out loud at every opportunity. 

In my opinion, it’s David Nicholls at his best. 

If you love his other work, you’ll fall head over heels for this. If you were a teenager, you’ll enjoy this meander down memory lane. If you want a book that tugs on your heart while making you laugh, you’ll want to read this.


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