Sweet Sorrow, David Mitchell, book review: ‘Contemplative treatment of life’s essential questions’

Author David Nicholls. Photograph: Sophia Spring

What is the value of educational qualifications? Is formal education really where people learn the most important things in life?

These are questions that are likely to be swirling through the minds of many young people during this season of educational hiatus and anticipation.

Sweet Sorrow by Highbury-based author David Nicholls takes on these dilemmas through an absorbing tale of first love and coming of age in a quiet Surrey town.

Charlie and Fran meet on a set of an am-dram production of Romeo and Juliet.

Both 16, they hail from quite different cultural corners. Charlie’s friends are tough kids in a rough school; Fran has gone to the posh school and drifted into an arty clique.

They fall in love, but their romance is faced by a stream of threats to rival those of their Veronese counterparts.

Life is not easy for Charlie – lurking family problems drag him down and tug on his self-esteem. He’s failed his exams and his prospects are uncertain.

Even his job at a local petrol station crashes and burns.

For Fran the future is full of promise, and she wants to bring Charlie along. Their challenge is somehow to make their love work against all the odds.

Brimming with laugh-out-loud humour, Sweet Sorrow is both a great summer read and a contemplative treatment of life’s essential questions about love, duty, identity and values.

Though the storyline starts deceptively simply, it swerves the obvious and becomes increasingly nuanced as the pages turn.

The “corny self-conscious melodrama of putting on a play” is nicely drawn, with attention to detail and mannerisms that ring true.

Whether you are 16, 46 or 76, you’ll recognise something of your (earlier) self in the characters.

Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls is published by Hodder and Stoughton, ISBN: 978 1 444 71540 8; RRP: £20.