Charlie Lewis recalls, with tenderness we all ought to reserve for our younger selves, the summer after he left school. 16-years-old, bored and unable to stand being in the house with his father, Charlie inadvertently joins a production of Romeo and Juliet in order to pursue a girl named Fran. I was completely blown away by how powerfully Nicholls evokes the intensity of first love, the excruciating embarrassment and awkwardness of being sixteen, and the enduring ability of Shakespeare to give us the words when we cannot find them ourselves.
The first chapters are enough to make you nostalgic for lumpy custard in the cafeteria, the absolute ridiculousness of setting off the fire extinguisher in the hall just because, and the gang mentality you develop in the last few weeks at school as a year group. Sweet Sorrow begins with a familiar image – a leaver’s assembly, full of hormonal and exciteable Year 11s, outwardly embarrassed and secretly touched by their headmaster’s final address. As the narrative continues, you succumb to the nostalgia of badly mixed vodka cokes, a clandestine and disgusting first kiss at a sweaty house party, the exhilaration of being obviously underage in the local pub.
Charlie navigates his parents’ divorce and the decline of once-beloved dad into bouts of crippling depression. Charlie’s complicated and often fraught friendships with the boys he has grown up with are stunningly accurate. Yet the unbearable laddish banter of Lloyd, and the sadness of Harper being unable to quite show up for Charlie when he needs him, was so poignant and true of male adolescent friendships. The boys use humour and physical violence to compete and impress one another, lest – God forbid – they should show that they might actually care for each-other. It is a reminder, in a moment of increased awareness about mental health, that young men can make a huge difference by simply being there for one another.
A scene in which Charlie, black out drunk, is brought home by his father and lovingly bathed, dressed and tucked in is mirrored by a later scene in which Charlie does the same for his suicidal father, who has overdosed. There is angst, and awkwardness, and difficulty here, and in equal measure there is love and care and tenderness. Scenes like these are so heartbreakingly tender that they knock the breath out of you. I felt physically winded by Charlie’s conversation with his mother, where he begs her not to leave him alone with his father. It is a universal truth of being 16: you are often still a very scared and vulnerable child. An adult Charlie sees things as they were: ‘the greatest lie that age tells about youth is that it’s somehow free of care, worry or fear’.
Nicholls shows just how unbelievably potent first love is. A clean slate, Charlie observes that he had never been ‘more primed to fall in love’. It will never feel so intense – or so bad, when it ends – ever again. Charlie and Fran’s romance does not live to see another halcyon summer, and it would have been easy for Nicholls to have Fran and Charlie reunite at 40 and grow old together. But there is no such happy ending – Charlie’s reunion with Fran is just as it should be: not a madly passionate, what-have-I-done, regretful snog in sight. Nicholls evokes the capacity of first love to linger in the imagination without allowing an undeniably seductive sense of nostalgia to get the better of Charlie or Fran – or indeed, the reader.
And of course, the Shakespeare. I loved Nicholls’s ode to the pathological adolescent intensity of Romeo and Juliet, mirrored by Charlie and Fran and their frantic snogging in hedgerows. I can’t put it better than Charlie: ‘How does Shakespeare know?’ Shakespeare does know, and he continues to know.
Words by Ellie Taylor
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