I’ve had David Nicholls’ Starter for Ten on my bookshelf for ages, and not because I wasn’t keen to start it. I was saving it. Just like I save the dumplings in a casserole or the strawberry and honey chocolates in a box of Milk Tray. However, I’d been saving it so dutifully that I’d actually forgotten I had it, making rediscovery an extra treat in itself.
So what of Nicholls’ debut novel? Was it what I hoped for, having been utterly charmed by the authentic and deeply affecting One Day? The answer is yes and no.
Yes because Nicholls is a great accessible writer who brings ordinary people and their thoughts to life, and also because the book is very funny. I knew I was off to a good start when the opening chapter made me laugh out loud. Brian Jackson, the book’s narrator, sets the scene as he tells us why he hates summer (primarily the way it makes the sun shine on the TV screen in the afternoon) and what he hopes to learn at university (a litany of weird and wonderful things that most people could probably relate to if they put to paper the odd things that float around their heads).
It was no surprise to learn that Nicholls spent much of his twenties as an actor, nor that he has been a fairly prolific screenwriter since, amid writing his novels. I didn’t realise that he’d actually adapted Starter for Ten for the big screen (I’m about to go and dig the film out) but his writing always has a filmic feel to it so I can imagine how such a thing would work (and how wonderful and unusual to be able to see a film of a book that is still totally the author’s vision!).
Anyway, Starter for Ten is the story of spotty Kate Bush fan Brian, who leaves his widowed mother and working class mates in Southend to go to university, where he falls in love with the unbearably beautiful Alice Harbinson and prepares to have his moment in the spotlight on his beloved University Challenge.
One thing you could never take away from David Nicholls is how well he depicts the mundane, and manages to make it funny and endearing. He’s like (and this is a huge compliment coming from me) the Richard Curtis of books – he can do both light-hearted and heartbreaking and he does them equally well. He’s great with teenage angst – and anyone who’s ever been away to uni will find something of their own experience in his, whether it’s his mum trying to press trays of cold meat and everything else bar the kitchen sink onto him as he tries in vain to get out the door, the vile experience of being deathly hungover in a grotty student bedroom, or learning how to navigate a new landscape of painful irony, the political earnestness of those who’ve never had to test their theories in the real world, and proper old-fashioned snobbery. Don’t get me wrong, Brian Jackson is no slick hero in this, watching all the foolishness go by – he manages to balance feelings of inadequacy and snobbery with a complete inability to stop talking even when he’s talking rubbish…..which leads me on to the No part of my analysis.
There were times when I just hated Brian Jackson. Obviously he’s not meant to be entirely sympathetic – who is at that age? He’s an inexperienced, awkward teenager trying to shuffle his way through the world, but sometimes I got frustrated by the way he was always his own worst enemy. Maybe (and I really hesitate to say this) it’s a gender thing – like the way my boyfriend (who bought me this book) always laughs hysterically at The Inbetweeners, while I oscillate between laughing, cringing and thinking ‘For god’s sake, why would you ever say that?!’
My university experience was also pretty different to Brian’s so I think that, on top of the fact that I can’t really relate to people who dig endless holes with the stupid things they say (I’m more of a clam up awkwardly and say nothing whilst thinking ‘Say something, anything’ type of person) I couldn’t connect to the story quite as much as I hoped to.
I found much more of myself in One Day, and although it’s possibly a bit narcissistic to assess books that way, it did make me enjoy it more. Nevertheless, David Nicholls’ great skill is in holding a mirror up to the horrid parts of the human mind – those thoughts everyone likes to pretend they don’t have – and I still think there’s something for everyone to relate to somewhere in this book. It’s funny, incisive and very, very readable. It doesn’t quite hit the high notes of One Day but it’s still undoubtedly worth a read.