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Book review: <i>Starter For Ten</i> by David Nicholls

Ah, to be a young man at university. The challenges, the girls, the fumbling relationships and difficult friendships. I wasn’t ever one myself, but I think that, while I was at university, I may have met a couple of young men very similar to the main character, and I certainly met some of the peripheral characters! And as an added bonus, while I had only ever heard of “University Challenge” on The Young Ones, and seen the spoof with Ben Elton et al, I have now been formally introduced to the phenomena thanks to Starter for Ten. While the book definitely had me reminiscing about Adrian Mole, it was very much its own story and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole excruciating business.

The story

It’s 1985, Brian is nineteen and is leaving his home town of Southend, England, his widowed mother, and his two best friends to go to that hallowed and sacred place of all intellectuals, university. He and his dad used to watch university challenge together, so he’s pretty chuffed when he finds out that he can compete to be on the team! However, he has a lot to contend with as well. His acne; his dubious and unfunny sense of humour that seems to make girls stare blankly; his sexual inexperience, his flatmates, who are private school boys with a penchant for homebrew and sports; Alice, the most beautiful girl in the world who just doesn’t seem to like him that way; Rebecca the socialist who thinks he’s lame; and his troubled best friend Spence, who rocks up one day with problems. In between all this, there is the constant drunkeness and ACTUAL LECTURES to attend. Phew! Can Brian somehow manage to put his superficial yet grandiose general knowledge to good use, while at the same time as becoming a decent and thoughtful human being with the ability to be socially ept? This book has a lot going on!

The style

Starter for Ten is written entirely in the first person, by Brian, who is just a really wonderfully developed character. David Nicholls has managed to convey real warmth and character, and Brian comes across as an unselfconfident teenager, who KNOWS when he’s saying or doing something stupid but just can’t seem to stop himself. In the writing all of his perceptions about the outside world are conveyed, and, of course, the reader is given a greater understanding of what is happening than Brian, based on what Brian says. Some of the characters are over-the-top stereotyped, but that’s okay, because at university a lot of teenagers try to live out their stereotypes to gain a sense of identity and belonging. The incidences that occur in the book are often slapstick and also over the top, but this adds to the general humour. It is also all believable, although improbable—it’s a lot easier to believe than Adrian Mole. It’s also less self absorbed. Brian’s voice is convincing the whole way through; I could practically hear his voice, accent and all. Starter for Ten has lots of English quirks of language and lifestyle specific to the eighties, which give the story added depth. I am an Adrian Mole fan, and while I know there are a lot of books about anguished teens out there I did really enjoy this one.

Who is this book for?

Fans of Adrian Mole, and possibly also Nick Hornby. It’s light, it can be finished in a day, it’s not taxing to read, and it has its own earnest and funny personality. If you don’t want to think too hard and you’re after a bit of a laugh, this is a good book for you.

In short

Title: Starter for Ten
Author: David Nicholls
Publisher: Flame
ISBN: 0340734876
Year published: 2003
Pages: 473
Genre(s): Fiction, Humour
Review Type: