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