Light travels differently in a room that contains another person

by David Nicholls

I’ve enjoyed David Nicholls novels in the past, but the hype around this one, partly because it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, suggested it was something a bit different, a break from the usual. I was unsure how to feel about that, but I gave it a go and now I’m befuddled, because to me it felt exactly like a David Nicholls novel.

That’s not a criticism of the novel, only of the marketing. Well, maybe it’s a little bit a criticism of the novel, in that I’m not sure exactly why this was deemed more literary, more mature in style, because to me it’s not. It’s a sweet, easy-to-read tale that’s more about plot than the writing. It is often introspective and soul-searching and I very much enjoyed it. I just…thought I might get a little more from it.

The novel opens with middle-aged Douglas being woken by his wife Connie who says that she is leaving him. Or she thinks she wants to. Their marriage isn’t working for her anymore and in a few months’ time, when their son Albie leaves home for university, she will probably leave too. In the meantime, it’s the summer when they had intended to take Albie on the trip of a lifetime, an old-fashioned grand tour around Europe, or at least its greatest art galleries. Connie wants to go ahead and so Douglas throws himself into planning the best holiday ever, hoping that maybe this way he can salvage his marriage.

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Fingers on the buzzers

Starter for Ten
by David Nicholls

I am deliberately not looking at my review of One Day just yet, but I suspect I have similar things to say. This book is funny, nostalgic and cringeingly true to life. Not as moving or romantic as One Day but definitely close in style.

Now, I made the mistake of watching the film before reading the book. I try not to do that if I can and this is a classic example of why. Even though it’s a few years since I watched the film, through at least the first half of the book I unfailingly pictured and heard James McAvoy in the lead role rather than conjuring up my own version. And the other distraction for me was also partly the film’s fault. The book is set in an unnamed English university city but the film was definitely Bristol, so I kept searching the text for clues as to whether it was a specific, unnamed (even slightly disguised) city or a genuine made-up mishmash. I’m still not sure (though if it is Bristol then there are definitely some errant details).

But enough of that. The book follows Brian’s first year at university, in 1985. He’s working class mixing with the middle classes and very very aware of it. He’s also a bit of a tosser (and he knows that and he means well, so he’s likeable most of the time). He’s read a lot and absorbed a lot of facts, and hasn’t yet grasped that this doesn’t necessarily make him clever or wise or discerning. He’s grappling with typical 18/19-year-old issues such as acne and relationships and making new friends and how (or if) you keep old friends when your life has changed and theirs haven’t; all while figuring out that university is supposed to be about getting an education. So he goes and complicates it all from the start by applying to be on the University Challenge team.

These days I can’t imagine a fresher getting a look-in at “The Challenge” but perhaps it was less popular in the 1980s? Or maybe this university advertised really poorly? Either way, both Brian and super attractive (and aware of it) first-year Alice get accepted and so begins a series of – mostly excruciatingly embarrassing – attempts by Brian to seduce Alice. Which he does while simultaneously ignoring the very lovely and far more suited to him Rebecca.

Brian has sentimental reasons for applying to be on University Challenge – most of his remaining memories of his dead father are of the two of them watching it on telly together. His grief is dealt with very well, I thought. Brian doesn’t dwell on it and has reached the stage where he tells people before they say something they might later regret, but he does occasionally cry still. He is very conflicted about how other people react and I think this was one of things that made me feel warmest toward him.

I enjoyed this book, and laughed out loud at times, but I have reservations. The main one being that, never having been a teenage boy myself, I found it very hard to read about Brian’s more disgusting/selfish side (does the boy ever wash?) and not be completely put off. I also must admit that it doesn’t feel particularly original. It relies heavily on the nostalgia factor and to some extent that did work for me (who ever thought we’d be waxing nostalgic over Woolworths?) but…I’m not sure it’s enough.

First published 2003 by Hodder & Staughton

The one that made me cry

One Day
by David Nicholls

This is very much a book that’s of its genre. I could reel off half a dozen successful authors of similar style. It’s engaging, gently but intelligently funny, easy to read, unchallenging. I almost feel guilty for having enjoyed it so much.

Which is silly because this is a book I bought having read a review that described a book I knew immediately that I would enjoy. It’s a love story told over 20 years, from 1988 to 2008; a wry observation of modern life and romance. I suppose I shrink from admitting it because it sounds mawkish, cheesy, but this book made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me think a lot about where I am in life and whether I’m happy.

The story is that of Emma and Dexter who shared one perfect night together after their graduation day, St Swithins Day, 15 July 1988. Each successive St Swithins Day in their lives is described up to 2008, with only passing reference to what has happened inbetween. It’s an effective format for covering a large timespan and avoids the obvious tendency to describe major events and skip the subtler ones. They’re believably fallible characters, likeable for the most part, and while the storyline is largely predictable it’s done well.

I picked this up to give myself a break between more challenging books and it was just right. It’s not at all frivolous or throwaway but it is a light, honest novel that touched me.

Published 2009 by Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN: 978-0-3408-9698-3

UPDATE: See also this review by Jackie of Farm Lane Books.