The Long-Awaited New Novel from the Best-Selling Author of One Day
Houghton Mifflin, 9780358274278, 416pp.
Publication Date: August 4, 2020
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. What kind of portrait does the book paint of adolescence? How is it characterized and what makes it remarkable? What does Charlie think is “the greatest lie that age tells you about youth” (165)? As he looks back upon the summer of 1997, what does he seem to have learned or taken away from the experiences he had at this time during his youth?
2. Consider how the novel offers up a dialogue about the power of art. How does learning Shakespeare change Charlie and alter the course of his life? How are he and others in the book affected by their newfound interests in music, art, and theater? How have the arts been influential—either directly or indirectly—in your own life?
3. What does the book reveal about the dual themes of nostalgia and memory? How does the author’s choice of narrator play a part in this? Is Charlie a reliable narrator? How does he view his past and how has his way of looking at the past changed? Is there a time in your own life that you feel particularly nostalgic about? Why do you think these particular memories are so enduring? Alternatively, is there a time or event in your life that you felt nostalgic about that has since lost its power? If so, why do you this is? What does the book ultimately suggest about memory and our relationship with our past? How does the book’s epigraph correspond to what the book reveals about memory and storytelling?
4. What does Charlie mean when he says that he “watched a cult of nostalgia grow” (97) over the years and what, in his mind, caused this growth? How does he feel that this influenced the relationship between memory and storytelling culturally speaking? Do you agree with him? Discuss.
5. Explore the major theme of love. What kinds of love are depicted in the novel? How does the book characterize first-love? Where does Charlie say that the story of first-love really lies? How does the book’s treatment of love change or evolve as we readers have an opportunity to see the characters as adults? How would you say that love ultimately comes to be defined in the book?
6. What does Sweet Sorrow seem to suggest about cultural gender norms and, specifically, “masculinity”? As Charlie grows up, what do he and his friends believe masculinity is? What is his relationship like with Harper, Fox, and Lloyd? How do they spend their time and how do they relate to one another? Why doesn’t Charlie tell his friends about his involvement with The Full Fathom Five? What does he notice is missing in their relationship? What role might these norms have played in his relationship with his father and how did it affect their relationship? How have cultural ideas about masculinity evolved—or otherwise remained the same—during your own lifetime?
7. How does Charlie’s story parallel that of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? What common themes, symbols, and motifs do the two stories share? What leads to the downfall of the protagonists in each tale? Does either story offer any portrayal of catharsis or redemption? If so, how is this achieved?
8. Reflecting on the title of the book, what seems to cause the sorrow that many of the characters experience throughout the story? How do they respond to and manage—or fail to manage—this emotion? Could their pain have been avoided somehow? Why or why not? Do they seem to learn anything by way of their suffering?
9. What does Charlie fear most about living alone with his father? What word does he say he and his family found ways to avoid? Why do you think they went to such great lengths to avoid this particular word? What stigma does their relationship reveal? Do you think that the stigma surround this issue has changed much since 1997? Discuss.
10. Why does Charlie begin stealing from the petrol station? How does he justify his actions? Why do you think that Charlie chooses to hide this from Fran? How do you think Fran would have responded if he had told her? Do you think that Charlie would have reformed his ways if he had not been caught? Does he ever really come to terms with his crime?
11. Like the characters in Shakespeare’s plays, the characters in Nicholls’ novel are both moved by communication and undone by miscommunication. How does the author build a dialogue around these two themes? How is good communication defined and what is its effect? What examples of miscommunication do we find in the book and what are the implications of this? Why do the characters keep secrets or struggle to communicate well with one another? Are they ever able to resolve this?
12. How did you feel about the conclusion of the book? Were you surprised by the reunion of Charlie and Fran? What does Charlie ultimately tell Fran was “what [he] came for]” (400)? How does she react to what he tells her? As Charlie rushes home after their meeting, what does he realize is “what really mattered” (412)?