Hi everyone! Recently I’ve been on the search for the best book set at university. Last night I finished David Nicholls debut novel- Starter for Ten. Once I read the blurb I was convinced it was the book for me. The premise- an English Literature student who loves University Challenge is almost a perfect description of me. Like Brian, the protagonist, most of my interaction with the programme comes from a lot of well placed guesses which amaze mostly my dad. Like Brian I also tried out for my university’s University Challenge team (unlike Brian I did not get onto to the team). Here is where, thankfully, the similarities between myself and Brian end. Below is my review but be aware it does contain Spoilers about the ending! For more I also left a review on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3583199231?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1
Brian. Oh, Brian. Brian is one of the worst characters I have read in a novel recently. The book is set in the 80’s and was written in 2003 but the misogyny is real. Brian’s attempts to gain Alice’s affections were embarrassing at best. As the only narrative voice we get as readers is Brian’s it’s actually hard to sympathise with him. We see him acknowledge his shortcomings yet he does absolutely nothing to rectify his behaviours and ends the novel without any form of character growth. Like many teenagers, Brian has acne. Unlike many teenagers Brian uses this fact to account for 25% of his personality. The other 75% is Brian trying to prove that he is very clever. At one point Brian releases he is not as academic as he thought he was and yet he continues to act as if this realisation hadn’t occurred.
The women in Starter For Ten have no real voice. Besides the times they speak to Brain most of our opinions of them come from the thoughts of our protagonist. Unfortunately, because Brian is so unlikeable it is actually easier to sympathise with Alice. Brian would have you believe she is mean for “leading him on” but Alice is a young woman who is independent and aware of her femininity as well as her sexuality. Alice throughout the novel tries to help Brian, she invites him to her house, which he spends all his time complaining about. She talks to him when no one else seems to care and yet he overbearingly criticises her acting and her politics. When you compare Alice and Brian it is Alice who comes off in a better light. She is comfortable in her own skin but because Brian is not, she becomes a villain in the story.
Rebecca is treated slightly nicer to Alice, mainly because of her political beliefs. Even here Brian tries to play sycophant and tries to get in good with Rebecca by hoping to say what he thinks she would want to hear. One of Brian’s main ethos is to be a feminist but due to his lack of respect for the opinions of women he actually comes off as the complete opposite.
The plot in Starter for Ten really doesn’t go anywhere. It is just an event after an event after an event. Each new plot point had me cringing with second hand embarrassment every time Brian tries to disguise his true self in order to form relationships. The biggest over arching plot point is the build up the University Challenge match. It is here that David Nicholls makes his biggest writing mistake. Throughout the novel readers are well aware of how important “The Challenge” is to Brian and how much he would like to succeed in the match. However, at the very last second he decides to cheat. It is in this moment that Nicholls reveals to readers that Brian has cheated at important moments of his before. If this fact had been revealed sooner than I feel like the moment would have had more impact. Rather it seemed to come out of left field and was clearly just a way to end the novel without seeing Brian and his team actually lose the match.
The ending is where I really hated this book. Rebecca deserved more than to be the girl Brian settles for seeing as he sees Alice’s relationship with another man as a great injustice. Brian at this point is supposed to show readers that he has made a great journey and is now more experienced than ever. However, he appears not to have changed at all therefore the ending is unsatisfying.
Overall I gave the book two stars out of five on Goodreads I will not be reading it again. The writing was not bad enough to warrant a one star review. My journey for great books set at university continues. If you have any recommendations for me, I would be grateful to receive them! Hope you are having a good week!