June 15, 2011

Review: Starter For 10 by David Nicholls

Starter for Ten: A Novel

The year is 1985. Brian Jackson, a working-class kid on full scholarship, has started his first term at university. He has a dark secret—a long-held, burning ambition to appear on the wildly popular British TV quiz showUniversity Challenge—and now, finally, it seems the dream is about to become reality. He's made the school team, and they've completed the qualifying rounds and are limbering up for their first televised match. (And, what's more, he's fallen head over heels for one of his teammates, the beautiful, brainy, and intimidatingly posh Alice Harbinson.) Life seems perfect and triumph inevitable—but as his world opens up, Brian learns that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

In 'Starter for 10', David Nicholls takes a risk that not many writers of popular fiction care to take: he creates in his lead character a young man that is not always admirable. Brian is not terribly attractive, he's moody, he often has a terribly timed sense of off the wall humor, and he's overly concerned with 'what people think'. Even Nick Hornby (to whose books this story is often compared) doesn't risk creating a lead that the reader doesn't always like.

That, however, is the genius of 'Starter for 10'. Brian is us (or at least the way many of us perceived ourselves when nineteen and spotty). He says stupid things, he does stupid things... even at the end of the story, when we should comfortably be able to like him, he's in the midst of lying to a character to whom he should be grateful. And we like him anyway.

Brian is in his first year at University. It's 1985. His dream is to compete on the televised 'University Challenge', as a sort of connection to his deceased father who followed that show closely. From first page to last, Brian is a social climber, determined to 'be somebody' at uni; more particularly, he wants to be more than the lower middle class kid from Surrey. He takes social risks that had me cringing even as I laughed... and I laughed a LOT while reading this book. Nicholls' dry, droll sense of humor is punctuated with broad gags and crude snickers, making Brian a believable manchild in a world that is difficult for him to navigate.

Vulnerability is also contained within. Brain's flashbacks to life with and immediately after his father's death, events that absolutely shaped who he is in the literary present, are touching, as is his terrible love/pity relationship with the friends he leaves behind (and indeed with his mother). One of the painfully funny clips comes as Brian returns to uni after Christmas break and faces loneliness. When he begins to suspect that HE is one of 'those people', the ones that are avoided once first term friendships are formed, I had a heart pang for him even as I smiled.

I came to this book after seeing and thoroughly enjoying the film of the same name, but (no surprise) this book is better than the film. The Brian of the film is still the same lovable loser, but the screenwriter chose to dump many of his darker, more unlovely traits in favor of making a good vehicle for likable actor, James McAvoy. In that, the writer succeeded, but at the price of oversimplifying a complex (and ultimately more satisfying) character.

Read 'Starter for 10'. It's lovely.



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