One of our recommended books is Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls


From the best-selling author of One Day comes a bittersweet and brilliantly funny coming-of-age tale about the heart-stopping thrill of first love—and how just one summer can forever change a life.

Now: On the verge of marriage and a fresh start, thirty-eight year old Charlie Lewis finds that he can’t stop thinking about the past, and the events of one particular summer.

Then: Sixteen-year-old Charlie Lewis is the kind of boy you don’t remember in the school photograph. He’s failing his classes. At home he looks after his depressed father—when surely it should be the other way round—and if he thinks about the future at all,

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From the best-selling author of One Day comes a bittersweet and brilliantly funny coming-of-age tale about the heart-stopping thrill of first love—and how just one summer can forever change a life.

Now: On the verge of marriage and a fresh start, thirty-eight year old Charlie Lewis finds that he can’t stop thinking about the past, and the events of one particular summer.

Then: Sixteen-year-old Charlie Lewis is the kind of boy you don’t remember in the school photograph. He’s failing his classes. At home he looks after his depressed father—when surely it should be the other way round—and if he thinks about the future at all, it is with a kind of dread.

But when Fran Fisher bursts into his life and despite himself, Charlie begins to hope.

In order to spend time with Fran, Charlie must take on a challenge that could lose him the respect of his friends and require him to become a different person. He must join the Company. And if the Company sounds like a cult, the truth is even more appalling: The price of hope, it seems, is Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet learned and performed in a theater troupe over the course of a summer.

Now: Charlie can’t go the altar without coming to terms with his relationship with Fran, his friends, and his former self. Poignant, funny, enchanting, devastating, Sweet Sorrow is a tragicomedy about the rocky path to adulthood and the confusion of family life, a celebration of the reviving power of friendship and that brief, searing explosion of first love that can only be looked at directly after it has burned out.

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  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Hardcover
  • August 2020
  • 416 Pages
  • 9780358274278

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About David Nicholls

David Nicholls is the author of Sweet Sorrow, credit Sophia SpringDavid Nicholls is the best-selling author of Us, One Day, The Understudy and Starter for Ten. His novels have sold over eight million copies worldwide and are published in forty languages. Nicholls trained as an actor before making the switch to writing, and he recently won a BAFTA for Patrick Melrose, his adaptation of the novels by Edward St Aubyn, which also won him an Emmy nomination. He lives in London.


“With fully fleshed-out characters, terrific dialogue, bountiful humor, and genuinely affecting scenes, this is really the full package of a rewarding, romantic read.” Booklist, starred review

“With his usual grace, Nicholls (Us; One Day) plumbs human relationships, this time offering a singular reading experience about one young man’s fraught coming of age . . . Nicholls masterfully unfolds events. The depth of feeling between friends, family members, and lovers, first time or not—Nicholls captures it all. Highly recommended. Library Journal, starred review 

“Nicholls excels at capturing Charlie’s insecurity, the messy exuberance of first love, and the coarseness of teenage male friendships . . . A good deal of fun.”Publishers Weekly

“David Nicholls’ Sweet Sorrow perfectly captures the intensity of first love, the beauty of a chosen family, and the complexity of transforming from a teenager to an adult. These are characters I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come.” —Jill Santopolo, New York Times bestselling author of The Light We Lost 

“A beautiful paean to young love. . . Sweet Sorrow is a book that does what Nicholls does best, sinking the reader deep into a nostalgic memory-scape, pinning the narrative to a love story that manages to be moving without ever tipping over into sentimentality, all of it composed with deftness, intelligence and, most importantly, humour. We may think of Nicholls as a writer of heartbreakers–One Day prompted many poolside tears – but he has always been a comic novelist and Sweet Sorrow is full of passages of laugh-out-loud Inbetweeners-ish humour. . .Here he proves that he can still pull off that most rare and coveted of literary feats: a popular novel of serious merit, a bestseller that will also endure.” Guardian

Discussion Questions

1. What kind of portrait does the book paint of adolescence? How is it characterized and what makes it remarkable? What does Charlie think is “the greatest lie that age tells you about youth” (165)? As he looks back upon the summer of 1997, what does he seem to have learned or taken away from the experiences he had at this time during his youth?

2. Consider how the novel offers up a dialogue about the power of art. How does learning Shakespeare change Charlie and alter the course of his life? How are he and others in the book affected by their newfound interests in music, art, and theater? How have the arts been influential—either directly or indirectly—in your own life?

3. What does the book reveal about the dual themes of nostalgia and memory? How does the author’s choice of narrator play a part in this? Is Charlie a reliable narrator? How does he view his past and how has his way of looking at the past changed? Is there a time in your own life that you feel particularly nostalgic about? Why do you think these particular memories are so enduring? Alternatively, is there a time or event in your life that you felt nostalgic about that has since lost its power? If so, why do you this is? What does the book ultimately suggest about memory and our relationship with our past? How does the book’s epigraph correspond to what the book reveals about memory and storytelling?

4. What does Charlie mean when he says that he “watched a cult of nostalgia grow” (97) over the years and what, in his mind, caused this growth? How does he feel that this influenced the relationship between memory and storytelling culturally speaking? Do you agree with him? Discuss.

5. Explore the major theme of love. What kinds of love are depicted in the novel? How does the book characterize first-love? Where does Charlie say that the story of first-love really lies? How does the book’s treatment of love change or evolve as we readers have an opportunity to see the characters as adults? How would you say that love ultimately comes to be defined in the book?

6. What does Sweet Sorrow seem to suggest about cultural gender norms and, specifically, “masculinity”? As Charlie grows up, what do he and his friends believe masculinity is? What is his relationship like with Harper, Fox, and Lloyd? How do they spend their time and how do they relate to one another? Why doesn’t Charlie tell his friends about his involvement with The Full Fathom Five? What does he notice is missing in their relationship? What role might these norms have played in his relationship with his father and how did it affect their relationship? How have cultural ideas about masculinity evolved—or otherwise remained the same—during your own lifetime?

7. How does Charlie’s story parallel that of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? What common themes, symbols, and motifs do the two stories share? What leads to the downfall of the protagonists in each tale? Does either story offer any portrayal of catharsis or redemption? If so, how is this achieved?

8. Reflecting on the title of the book, what seems to cause the sorrow that many of the characters experience throughout the story? How do they respond to and manage—or fail to manage—this emotion? Could their pain have been avoided somehow? Why or why not? Do they seem to learn anything by way of their suffering?

9. What does Charlie fear most about living alone with his father? What word does he say he and his family found ways to avoid? Why do you think they went to such great lengths to avoid this particular word? What stigma does their relationship reveal? Do you think that the stigma surround this issue has changed much since 1997? Discuss.

10. Why does Charlie begin stealing from the petrol station? How does he justify his actions? Why do you think that Charlie chooses to hide this from Fran? How do you think Fran would have responded if he had told her? Do you think that Charlie would have reformed his ways if he had not been caught? Does he ever really come to terms with his crime?

11. Like the characters in Shakespeare’s plays, the characters in Nicholls’ novel are both moved by communication and undone by miscommunication. How does the author build a dialogue around these two themes? How is good communication defined and what is its effect? What examples of miscommunication do we find in the book and what are the implications of this? Why do the characters keep secrets or struggle to communicate well with one another? Are they ever able to resolve this?

12. How did you feel about the conclusion of the book? Were you surprised by the reunion of Charlie and Fran? What does Charlie ultimately tell Fran was “what [he] came for]” (400)? How does she react to what he tells her? As Charlie rushes home after their meeting, what does he realize is “what really mattered” (412)?


The End of the World

The world would end at five to four, just after the disco.

Our final day at Merton Grange Secondary School had arrived, brilliant and bright and commencing with skirmishes at the gates; school ties worn as bandanas and tourniquets, in knots as compact as a walnut or fat as a fist, with enough lipstick and jewelry and dyed blue hair to resemble some futuristic nightclub scene. What were the teachers going to do on our last day, send us home? They sighed and waved us through. The last week of formal lessons had been spent in desultory, dispiriting classes about something called “adult life,” which would, it seemed, consist largely of filling in forms and compiling a CV (“Hobbies and Interests: Socializing, watching television”). We learned how to balance a checkbook. We stared out of the window at the lovely day and thought, not long now. Four, three, two . . .

Back in our form room at break we began to graffiti our white school shirts with felt-tips and Magic Markers, kids hunched over each other’s backs like tattooists in a Russian jail, marking all available space with sentimental abuse. Take care of yourself, you dick, wrote Paul Fox. This shirt stinks, wrote Chris Lloyd. In a lyrical mood, my best friend Martin Harper wrote mates4ever beneath a finely detailed cock and balls.

Harper and Fox and Lloyd. These were my best friends at the time, not just boys but the boys—the group was self-sufficient and impenetrable. Though none of us played an instrument, we’d imagined ourselves as a band. Harper, we all knew, was lead guitar and vocals. Fox was bass, a low and basic thump-thump-thump. Lloyd, because he proclaimed himself “mad,” was the drummer, which left me as . . .

“Maracas,” Lloyd had said, and we’d laughed, and “maracas” was added to the long list of nicknames. Fox drew them on my school shirt now, maracas crossed beneath a skull, like military insignia. Mr. Ambrose, feet up on the desk, kept his eyes fixed on the video of Free Willy 2 that played in the background, a special treat ignored by everyone.

In our final assembly, Mr. Pascoe made the speech that we’d all expected, encouraging us to look to the future but remember the past, to aim high but weather the lows, to believe in ourselves but think of others. The important thing was not only what we’d learned—and he hoped we’d learned a great deal!—but also the kind of young adults we’d become, and we listened, young adults, stuck between cynicism and sentimentality, boisterous on the surface but secretly daunted and sad. We sneered and rolled our eyes but elsewhere in the hall hands gripped other hands and snuffles were heard as we were urged to cherish the friendships we’d made, the friendships that would last a lifetime.

“A lifetime? Christ, I hope not,” said Fox, locking my head beneath his arm, fondly rubbing his knuckles there. It was prize-giving time, and we sank low in our chairs. Prizes were awarded to the kids who always got the prizes, applause fading long before they’d left the stage to stand in front of the photographer from the local press, book tokens held beneath the chin as if in an ID parade. We sank lower in our chairs until horizontal, then, when it was over, we shuffled out to have our photo taken.

But I realize how absent I am from the above. I remember the day well enough even across twenty years, but when I try to describe my role, I find myself reaching for what I saw and heard, rather than anything I said or did. “What were you like?” my future wife would later ask, “before we met?” and I’d struggle to reply. As a student, my distinctive feature was a lack of distinction. “Charlie works hard to meet basic standards and for the most part achieves them”; this was as good as it got, and even that slight reputation had been dimmed by events of the exam season. Not admired but not despised, not adored but not feared; I was not a bully, though I knew a fair few, but did not intervene or place myself between the pack and the victim, because I wasn’t brave either. I neither conformed nor rebelled, collaborated nor resisted; I stayed out of trouble without getting into anything else. Comedy was our great currency, and while I was not a class clown, neither was I witless. I might occasionally get a surprised laugh from the crowd, but my best jokes were either drowned out by someone with a louder voice or came far too late, so that even now, more than twenty years later, I think of things I should have said in ’96 or ’97. I knew that I was not ugly—someone would have told me—and was vaguely aware of whispers and giggles from huddles of girls, but what use was this to someone with no idea what to say? I’d inherited height, and only height, from my father, my eyes, nose, teeth and mouth from Mum—the right way round, said Dad—but I’d also inherited his tendency to stoop and round my shoulders in order to take up less space in the world. Some lucky quirk of glands and hormones meant that I’d been spared the pulsing spots and boils that literally scarred so many adolescences, and I was neither skinny with anxiety nor plump with the chips and canned drinks that fueled us, but I wasn’t confident about my appearance. I wasn’t confident about anything at all.

Soon it would be time for my friends and me to settle into some role we might plausibly fit, but when I tried to see myself as others saw me (sometimes literally, late at night, staring profoundly into my father’s shaving mirror, hair slicked back), I saw . . . nothing special. In photos of myself from that time, I’m reminded of those early incarnations of a cartoon character, the prototypes that resemble the later version but are in some way out of proportion, not quite right.

None of which is much help. Imagine, then, another photograph, the school group shot that everybody owns, faces too small to make out without peering closely. Whether it’s five or fifty years old, there’s always a vaguely familiar figure in the middle row, someone with no anecdotes or associations, no scandals or triumphs, to their name. You wonder: who was that?

That’s Charlie Lewis.