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The Folger Spotlight

Words, Words, Words: 'Sweet Sorrow' by David Nicholls

Bust of Shakespeare wearing thick rimmed glasses on an aqua background
Bust of Shakespeare wearing thick rimmed glasses on an aqua background

The Folger’s virtual book club, Words, Words, Words continues on Thursday, June 3 with a discussion of David Nicholls’ Sweet Sorrow. To get ready for the conversation, we’ve compiled some introductory information on this tragicomic novel the Washington Post called “a tale of first love that hits all the right notes.”

What is Sweet Sorrow about?

Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls, an illustration of a man and woman reading on their backs with the books obscuring their faces in shades of white, yellow and black against a blue background

Now: On the verge of marriage and a fresh start, thirty-eight year old Charlie Lewis finds that he can’t stop thinking about the past, and the events of one particular summer.

Then: Sixteen-year-old Charlie Lewis is the kind of boy you don’t remember in the school photograph. But when Fran Fisher bursts into his life and despite himself, Charlie begins to hope. The price of hope, it seems, is Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet learned and performed in a theater troupe over the course of a summer.

Poignant, funny, enchanting, devastating, Sweet Sorrow is a tragicomedy about the rocky path to adulthood and the confusion of family life, a celebration of the reviving power of friendship and that brief, searing explosion of first love that can only be looked at directly after it has burned out.

Critical Reception

“Nicholls’s effortless distillation of this formative experience is enough to make a reader wonder if all first loves share some of the same chords. Combined with the humor he brings to this adolescent awakening, the novel is a lilting reminder of how, even as the years fly by, certain events loom huge in our minds.”—Washington Post

Sweet Sorrow is a book that does what Nicholls does best, sinking the reader deep into a nostalgic memory-scape, pinning the narrative to a love story that manages to be moving without ever tipping over into sentimentality, all of it composed with deftness, intelligence and, most importantly, humour.”—Guardian

“An old-fashioned, endearing romance…”—Kirkus Reviews

Why did we pick this book?

The study of Shakespeare involves not only his life, history, and plays, but the cultural impact he continues to have through the centuries and the very personal reaction people have to discovering his works.

The action of Sweet Sorrow centers on an amateur performance of Romeo and Juliet and explores one young man’s first encounter with both love and the power of Shakespeare’s words.

About the author: David Nicholls

White man with brown hair and dark rimmed glassesAdapted from the British Council website.

David Nicholls was born in 1966 and studied English Literature and Drama at the University of Bristol, after which he studied acting at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. His first script was an adaptation for the screen of Sam Shepherd’s stage play, Simpatico, with director Matthew Warchus. His first original script was Waiting, later optioned by the BBC. His romantic comedy for television, I Saw You, won a BANFF Award (Best Single Play). He went on to write several pieces for television, including the BAFTA nominated, Much Ado About Nothing, an updated version of the Shakespearean comedy, starring Damian Lewis and Sarah Parrish; and an adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles in 2008.

He is the author of four novels: Starter for Ten (2003), the story of Brian Jackson, who arrives at University with the burning ambition of appearing on University Challenge; The Understudy (2005); One Day (2009), a love story spanning 20 years; and Us (2014), a picaresque about a couple traveling Europe in a bid to save their marriage. One Day won the Galaxy National Book Award (Book of the Year), and Us was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

Meet our Bookshop Partner: Lost City Books

Lost City Books used New RareThis month, we are excited to partner with Lost City Books, an independent bookstore in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington DC, offering used, new, and rare book selections as part of DC’s thriving book-loving community.

Owned by Adam, a veteran and dog-lover, a long-time resident of DC, and an enthusiastic disseminator of books. Our small team is a collection of some of DC’s coolest kids: artists, educators, musicians, writers, and—of course—avid readers all coming together to create this unique environment.

Order online, by phone (202.232.4774), or come in person and browse the shelves. Front door pickup and shipping options are available. For questions, email

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Make a plan to join us on Thursday, June 3 to discuss Sweet Sorrow. Visit our website to register and stay tuned for additional Folger resources to enrich the conversation.