A Summer Of David Nicholls
How does David Nicholls do it?
The man is in his early fifties, a father to two teenagers, has been married to his wife Hanna for almost two decades, and by all accounts has a blissfully boring life. And yet, he has spent his entire adulthood writing fictional novels containing some of the most iconic romances of our time. The Guardian called him, “The man who made a nation cry.” He is widely considered a national treasure in the UK; frequently described in interviews as “humble” and “modest”, he has never been one to discuss the success of his work – One Day sold more than five million copies – or the fact that he’s a Bafta-winning, Man Booker Prize-nominated screenwriter and author, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a single bad article written about him.
He has that enviable gift for writing about young love, first love, old love and lost love with such reverence and nuance that you’d be forgiven for thinking he was some kind of nomad who spends his life travelling the world in search of lovers from different cities just to collect stories and anecdotes to use as new material.
As with a lot of things, my fascination with David Nicholls began on The High Low. Nicholls was a guest on Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton’s podcast in July of this year to discuss his latest novel, Sweet Sorrow (more on that later). And he just came across as the sweetest, most gentle man in the entire world. It was like he was genuinely honoured that anyone had taken the time to read anything he’d ever written.
I started with One Day – that’s the one that made The Guardian call him,“The man who made a generation cry.” One Day follows two characters, Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, from their graduation on the 15th of July 1988, through to their early 40s. Visiting them once a year, on the same day. Ah, Emma and Dexter. Em and Dex! I could have followed them forever. It was the same sensation I felt reading Marianne and Connell in Normal People by Sally Rooney; two people circling each other, neither one willing to say what needs to be said. The best parts of One Day are also the parts that will break your heart: the missed signals, the letters Dexter wrote that never found their way to Emma, the phone calls almost made, the words almost said. One Day ends in 2007, meaning that it never mentions the Internet, and it’s hard to imagine how differently the story might have been told if Emma and Dexter had the perils of social media to compete with. As to whether *that twist* was too cruel? Well, that’s still up for debate.
I’m now halfway through Nicholls latest novel, Sweet Sorrow, a coming-of-age story about first love, being a teenager, the confusions of family life (and coming to terms with our parents own humanity), and that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it feeling of being young and desperately hopeful. Charlie Lewis has just failed his GCSE’s and is facing that long summer after graduation before you start your new life as an adult. For Kiwis, it’s that feeling when you’ve walked out of the school gates on your last day of year 13 and you’ve got approximately six to eight weeks before you have to either get a job or leave for university. Charlie is bored and listless when he meets a girl called Fran Fisher and falls in love. The story is narrated by Charlie retrospectively, and because he’s looking back on that summer of 1997 there is this underlying tension throughout the book. As a reader, you’re wondering where he is now? How much time has passed – Five years? Ten? More? How did it all turn out? And is Fran sitting beside him?
For anyone who has come out the other side of their teenage years relatively unscathed, Sweet Sorrow is a deeply nostalgic book. In fact, in Nicholls’s interview on The High Low, Dolly admits that the nostalgia was quite heavy at times and gave her a sense of “homesickness”. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that a lot of us spend adulthood trying to recapture or recreate those intense feelings of our youth. As for how this fifty-something, monogamous, father-of-two was able to capture the humour, melancholy, nervousness and regret of a sixteen-year-old so perfectly? Well, I guess that’s because being sixteen is a universal experience. Just like Charlie Lewis, my sixteen-year-old self was too self-aware, self-absorbed, self-obsessed and self-conscious. I wanted so badly to get away from myself, to get out of my own skin, and yet I lacked the life experience to do so.
What Nicholls does so effectively in all of his books is present the argument that the architecture of a person’s life isn’t made up by the big, grand moments of marriage or divorce, of new life or death, but instead it’s made up of all the small stuff that happens. The conversations. The job interviews. The unplanned encounters. The missed signals, missed taxis, and spontaneous decisions. It’s actually all of those things that ultimately propel us into a future we can’t yet see for ourself and alter the trajectory of our lives without us even realising. And, ironically, it’s this realisation that starts to make life exciting, because on any given day we are making iterations to our own architecture just by being out in the world.
And so I guess it makes sense that I’m having a summer – rather than a winter – of David Nicholls. Because never is a person more hopeful or expectant than when the days start to get longer and the air feels warmer. Like a race car heating up it’s engine before launching itself from the start line.