I first encountered the work of David Nicholls with Us (2014) late last year. You can read my blog about it here. Starter for Ten (2003) is his first novel and there are many similarities with Us: the first person narrator, here Brian Jackson, like Douglas Peterson in Us, talks to the reader like you’re old friends, but – and here is where Nicholls shines – the hero is really a dork; yes, people call him names, especially his best friends, but you agree with them, Nicholls shows you, more than tells you, what he is really like: loveable but … for an intelligent university undergraduate he is clueless, particularly when it comes to women and himself, and that’s where most of the humour lies.
Brian Jackson has finally got to university and he heads off to engage with knowledge.
I want to know about Plato and Newton, Tolstoy and Bob Dylan; what the words ‘dialectic’ and ‘peripatetic’ mean; I want to know why people actually like jazz …
He is so enthralled with knowledge having been brought up on a diet of TV quiz shows whose list of questions has usually been introduced with the phrase ‘And your starter for ten is…’ i.e, your first question for ten points is … and his father has instilled in him at a very young age that getting it right is the ultimate point to everything.
He wants to join every student club there is but decides on the University Challenge team, well, he doesn’t quite get on the team, he’s given the standby spot. University Challenge is a nation-wide TV quiz show and he’s desperate to find an outlet, a successful outlet, for all that knowledge.
He also wants to be loved and fixes his sights on Alice Harbinson, the prettiest girl he has ever seen. Of course everything gets in his way, study, alcohol, friends, Alice’s parents, Alice, his Mum, and most importantly, his own view of himself – as well as his arms: what do you do with them when you’re sharing a single bed with someone?
It’s a laugh-out loud coming-of-age story, it’s become a Nicholls’ specialty, and framed by his ambition to be in the team for the coming-up new TV series of University Challenge. Yes, he gets places with Alice and yes, he gets on the team but that’s only a taste of the story. No spoilers here.
It’s highly predictable – but some unexpected twists – but entertaining and very funny.
On YouTube you can find an excellentHBO/BBC movie version (in English, you’ll soon get used to the Spanish sub-titles) made in 2006, penned by Nicholls, co-produced by Tom Hanks, with Sam Mendes as an executive producer, directed by Tom Vaughan, and staring James McAvoy, Rebecca Hall, James Condon, and Benedict Cumberbatch.
You can buy the book, and other David Nicholls titles, in various formats here.