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‘Sweet Sorrow,’ by David Nicholls, is a tale of first love that hits all the right notes

What if, instead of loving Romeo and dying dramatically, Juliet fell for Benvolio and their relationship died a natural death? That’s the question posed in “Sweet Sorrow,” the new novel from David Nicholls that just might be the sweetest book to brighten your late summer.

At 16, Charlie Lewis has had a rough couple of years. His parents have divorced, leaving Charlie and his younger sister bouncing between households. At his high school, Merton Grange, Charlie has a few friends but doesn’t connect well with any of them. He’s the perfect candidate for recruitment by a theater cooperative. Full Fathom Five, an amateur dramatics society run by a loose cadre of bohemian types, arrives in suburban Sussex to put on a production of, yes, “Romeo and Juliet.”

Charlie assumes that others drawn to the troupe will come from the nearby private school, Chatsborne. While a few fellow Merton Grange-ites are taking part, he forsakes them for the heavenly Fran Fisher, who is, of course, cast as Juliet. Charlie knows his own assignment as Benvolio is almost a gift; he may be bitten by the drama bug, but that doesn’t make him an actor.

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In any case, the drama-club business functions as a backdrop to the real story Nicholls wants to tell, that of first love and its echoes through our lives. In novels like “One Day” and “Us” and even in his astonishing small-screen adaptation of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, Nicholls has demonstrated an acute understanding of those moments in life that change things. We know early in the book that Charlie and Fran don’t marry young and spend their lives together; Charlie tells us about their youthful passion from 20 years later, when he is nearly 38.

Framing the story this way enables Nicholls to both save it from saccharine dithering and to remind readers that we’ve all had our own sweet sorrows, first loves that, when recounted, might set other people’s teeth on edge. Yet, as Fran explains to Charlie when they do meet again later, first love is like “a stupid pop song that you hear and you think, well, that is all I will ever want to listen to. It’s got everything, it’s clearly the greatest piece of music ever written, I need nothing else.” It’s only a matter of time before you see the error of your ways. “But when it comes on the radio,” she adds, “well, it’s still a good song.”

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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. Charlie has family members and friends with their own challenges, but “Sweet Sorrow” is not a book about them. It’s a book about what it means to grow up, move on and see a long-ago love out of the stage lights and in the light of day.

Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”

Sweet Sorrow

By David Nicholls

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 416 pp. $27

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