In the endless debate “One Day: yay or nay?” I’m in the yay corner, but this one easily became my favorite David Nicholls and will probably also become one of the best of the year.

It’s 1985 and Brian Jackson won a university scholarship and is starting his freshman year. His intellectual tastes have always set him apart among his blue-collar family and friends, so he’s hoping that at university he’ll fit in among other Kate Bush and Nietzsche lovers. He dreams of “staying up all night debating” and “using obscure words confidently”. This is also his chance to fulfill his secret dream to enter University Challenge, which he used to faithfully watch with his dad before he died.

Even though Brian makes the quiz team, things don’t go as planned. A working class kid trying to fit in in a posh environment always stands out as a sore thumb, and it doesn’t help that he falls in love with one of his teammates, the intimidatingly elegant Alice.

Brian has an image in his mind of the type of man he wants to be and his efforts to become this fantasy don’t immediately make him a loving character. He’s the Adrian Mole-type: dermatologically-challenged, socially awkward, always trying too hard. But while I always saw Adrian as a stereotype, Brian’s search for his sense of identity and belonging rang true. Nicholls actually admitted that he used his own experiences in Starter for Ten, “University is traditionally an opportunity to reinvent yourself, and I clearly decided to reinvent myself as a bit of a prat”, he said in an article in The Guardian.

As in all coming of age novels, identity is a big topic, and some of the laugh-out-loud moments in Starter for Ten are also powerful messages about the fine balance between fitting in and being yourself. Brian is constantly maneuvering between these two points (with more than one embarrassing faux-pas in between), and I finished the book feeling I never quite grasped who he really was. I’m not sure Brian did either. Actually, I think that for many years to come Brian will be a work in progress, and that’s ok with me.

There is one great scene that speaks volumes about this. Brian is in an art gallery with Rebecca, the Marxist, Jewish law student with a big mouth that of course we the readers are rooting for instead of vile-Alice. They start a heated debate about the value of art and of Brian’s chosen major, English literature. He argues that literature is “basically the study of everything” and she aggressively attacks back “anyone who thinks they can learn anything practical about politics or psychology or science by flicking through Under Milk Wood is talking our of their arse.” As the discussion goes on, Brian starts to falter in his confidence and arguments. When they leave the gallery and say goodbye, Rebecca tells him,

And Jackson, of course you should study whatever subject you want, the appreciation of literature, or any kind of artistic endeavor, is absolutely essential to a decent society, why do you think books are the first thing that the Fascists burn? You should learn to stick up for yourself more.

Rebecca nails him perfectly. She’s a great character, the type I’d love to be friends with.

Starter for Ten is full of precious one-liners (“A little strange and unsettling, like seeing Stalin on a skateboard.”), but what makes it so great is the smart way it approaches serious stuff, much in the tradition of Nick Hornby. Here’s a good example, about isolation and loneliness:

Independence is the luxury of all those people who are too confident, and busy, and popular, and attractive to be just plain old lonely. And make no mistake, lonely is absolutely the worst thing to be. Tell someone that you’ve got a drink problem, or an eating disorder, or your dad died when you were a kid even, and you can almost see their eyes light up with the sheer fascinating drama and pathos of it all, because you’ve got an issue, something for them to get involved in, to talk about and analyse and discuss and maybe even cure. But tell someone you’re lonely and of course they’ll seem sympathetic, but look very carefully and you’ll see one hand snaking behind their back, groping for the door handle, ready to make a run for it, as if loneliness itself were contagious. Because being lonely is just so banal, so shaming, so plain and dull and ugly.

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Other thoughts: Book Bath, Reading, fueled by tea (yours?)

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