Title: Starter for Ten
Author: David Nicholls
Genre: Contemporary fiction, comic fiction, British fiction
Publisher: Villard New York
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Review copy from GoodReads
First line: All young people worry about things, it’s a natural and inevitable part of growing up, and at the age of sixteen my greatest anxiety in life was that I’d never again achieve anything as good, or pure, or noble, or true, as my O-level exam results.
Brian Jackson is a grant student entering his first year at university. Coming from blue collar family and friends, he’s always been the oddball at home, and is hoping that at university he will find his niche. As a fan of the television show University Challenge, he is excited to make the team, even if it is only as first alternate – mostly because he gets to see the posh and beautiful Alice at team meetings. As his first year of college progresses, though, Brian learns the valuable lesson that knowledge does not equal wisdom – and that there is more to being smart than knowing all the answers.
Have you ever had this kind of experience: you’re reading a book, and you read a sentence-paragraph-half-a-page-chapter that is so tautly written and absolutely hysterical that you must read it aloud to someone immediately – only there isn’t anyone around?!? I had this experience while reading Starter for Ten over and over (and over and over) again. One of the cover blurbs says that this book has the “elusive Hornby-factor” and I would second that thought – this book has the same way of looking at the world slant-ways and finding the humor and stark-raving madness in the mere fact of being human – and yet Nicholls manages to find his own voice and not come across as a Hornby wannabe.
In Brian, Nicholls has captured the ultimate eighteen-year-old – he is convinced that he is now an adult, and he is READY FOR LIFE. And yet, any of us who have reached the age of 25 – or even 20 (or in my case almost 20 years older than that) – remember how little we knew about ourselves and the world at age 18. Brian is a truly lovable character – you root for him and root for him and then groan when he completely sabotages any chances of being seen as a cool – or even normal – person. He simply has the worst possible luck, in little things like picking out the restaurant for a first date or simply getting a haircut – so you can imagine how his luck runs when it comes to the big things, like finding true love, or getting an education.
I loved Nicholls’ novel One Day, but I’m glad that I read one review that stated how different it was from Starter for Ten. Because I knew that going in, I wasn’t expecting this to be the same kind of book. It isn’t. It has more humor and, in spite of Brian’s rotten luck, more hope. This doesn’t make it better or worse, as I gave both books five stars, just different. So, if you loved One Day, read this and know that it is a different book. If you didn’t like One Day, read this and know that it is a different book.
I marked so many passages to share with you – way too many to truly share, but I will leave you with a few snippets that had me smiling, laughing, or nodding my head in agreement.
“I find out in the middle of a lecture on Coleridge and Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads. Dr. Oliver’s been talking for some time now, and I’ve been trying to concentrate, really I have, but to my mind a lyrical ballad is something like Kate Bush singing, “The Man with the Child in His Eyes,” and that’s my central problem with the Romantics; they’re just not romantic enough. You imagine it’s going to be a lot of love poetry that you can plagiarize in Valentine’s cards, but generally speaking it’s all about lakes and urns and leech collectors. From what I can glean from Dr. Oliver, the primary concerns of the Romantic Mind were (1) Nature, (2) Man’s relationship with Nature, (3) Truth and (4) Beauty, whereas I tend to respond best to poetry that explores the themes: (a) God, you’re really nice, (b) I fancy you, please go out with me, (c) going out with you is really, really great and (d) why won’t you go out with me anymore? It’s the sensitive and profound handling of these themes that makes the poetry of Shakespeare and Donne the most affecting and lyrical in the English canon.” ~ p. 85
“I know the difference between a pterosaur, a pteranodon, a pterodactyl and a ramphorhynchus. I know the Latin name for most of the common domestic British birds. I know the capital cities of nearly every country in the world, and most of the flags too. I know that Magdalene College is pronounced Maudlin College. I know the complete plays of Shakespeare except Timon of Athens, and the complete novels of Charles Dickens except Barnaby Rudge, and all the Narnia books, and the order in which they were all written, approximate in the case of Shakespeare. I know every lyric of every song Kate Bush has ever recorded, including B sides, as well as the highest chart position of every single she’s released. I know all the French irregular verbs, and where the phrase “toe the line” comes from, and what the gall bladder’s for, and how oxbow lakes are formed, and all the British monarchs in order, and the wives of Henry VIII and their fates, the difference between igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks, and the dates of the major battles of the War of the Roses, the meanings of the words “albedo,” “peripatetic” and “litotes,”* and the average number of hairs on a human head, and how to crochet, and the difference between nuclear fission and fusion and how to spell “deoxyribonucleic ” and the constellations of the stars and the population of the earth and the mass of the moon and the workings of the human heart. And yet the important and most basic things, like friendship, or getting over Dad dying, or loving someone, or just simply being happy, just being good and decent and dignified and happy, seems to be utterly and completely beyond my comprehension. And it occurs to me that I’m not clever at all, that in fact I am without a doubt the most ignorant, the most profoundly and hopelessly stupid, person in the whole world.” ~ p. 303
“I’m meant to be doing an essay on “Nature Imagery in John Donne’s Holy Sonnets,” but I’ve been looking for a week now and still can’t actually find any. My pencil notes in the margin don’t help much either. I’ve written things like “the Annunciation!” and “irony?” and “cf. Freud” and “here he turns the tables!,” and I can’t remember why, so instead I pick up Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology. It occurs to me that there are six ages of book-reading. The first is picture books, then (2) books with more illustrations than words, then (3) books with more words than illustrations, then (4) books with no illustrations, just a map maybe, or a family tree, but lots of dialogue, then (5) books with long paragraphs and hardly any dialogue, then (6) books with no dialogue, no narrative, just great long paragraphs and footnotes and bibliographies and appendixes and very, very small writing. Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology is very much a book of the sixth kind, and, intellectually speaking, I’m still stuck somewhere between ages four and five. I read the first sentence, flick through in a fruitless search for a map or photo or illustration, then fall asleep.” ~ p. 99
*albedo: reflective power; specifically : the fraction of incident radiation (as light) that is reflected by a surface or body (as the moon or a cloud)
peripatetic: pedestrian, itinerant
litotes: understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary (as in “not a bad singer” or “not unhappy”)