Review: Starter for Ten by David Nicholls


The year is 1985. Brian Jackson, a working-class kid on full scholarship, has started his first term at university. He has a dark secret—a long-held, burning ambition to appear on the wildly popular British TV quiz show University Challenge—and now, finally, it seems the dream is about to become reality. He’s made the school team, and they’ve completed the qualifying rounds and are limbering up for their first televised match. (And, what’s more, he’s fallen head over heels for one of his teammates, the beautiful, brainy, and intimidatingly posh Alice Harbinson.) Life seems perfect and triumph inevitable—but as his world opens up, Brian learns that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

I read One Day, probably Nicholls’ most famous work, back in 2010 and though it was ok. Funny and entertaining – nothing more, nothing less. However, as his most recent book Us was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, I decided that I should give his writing another go. I had heard someone recommend Starter for Ten and reading the synopsis at the back of the book, it seemed alright.

Starter for Ten features Brian who comes from a working-class background and is beginning his studies in university with high expectations. He feels ready to take in the university experience: impressing teachers in classes, insightful discussions about the important questions, drinking quality red wine, writing poetry and reading it aloud, quoting Sartre from memory, falling in love, etc. But Brian also has another dream, the dream of competing in The University Challenge – a popular quiz show that tests general knowledge. However, Brian soon comes face to face with the realities of student life and the problems concerning growing up and fulfilling our dreams.

As with One Day, Starter for Ten was entertaining and funny. It was interesting to read about studying English Literature and students in the 1980s, some of it reminding me of my exchange term in England. Nicholls writes entertaining prose and his characters are imitation of reality, making you either laugh out load or groan in embarrassment. However, the book didn’t rock my world nor did it provide insights that I hadn’t yet found elsewhere. In addition, I found the overall plot line slightly predictable. I’d recommend this book to people who are going to university soon or in their first year of studies, simply because I think they can relate to some of the cultural specifics of university life.


I want to be fully engaged in the World of Ideas, I want to understand complex economics, and what people see in Bob Dylan. I want to possess radical but humane and well-informed political ideals, and I want to hold passionate but reasoned debates round wooden kitchen tables, saying things like ‘define your terms!’ and ‘your premise is patently specious!’ and then suddenly to discover that the sun’s come up and we’ve been talking all night. I want to use words like ‘eponymous’ and ‘solipsistic’ and ‘utilitarian’ with confidence.


2 thoughts on “Review: Starter for Ten by David Nicholls

    • I agree. I think Nicholls has a knack for recapturing the feeling of certain time periods and the uncertainty of life. Had I read this in the beginning of my studies, I might have found it spot on.

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