Wednesday 7 August 2013

Reviewed by Arianne: This Is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith.

Product details:
Publisher: Headline.
Hardcover, 416 pages.
Release date: April 4th 2013.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Ages: 13+
Source: Purchased.
Reviewed by: Arianne.

If fate sent you an email, would you answer?

In This is What Happy Looks Like, Jennifer E. Smith's new YA novel, perfect strangers Graham Larkin and Ellie O'Neill meet—albeit virtually—when Graham accidentally sends Ellie an email about his pet pig, Wilbur. In the tradition of romantic movies like "You've Got Mail" and "Sleepless in Seattle," the two 17-year-olds strike up an email relationship, even though they live on opposite sides of the country and don't even know each other's first names.

Through a series of funny and poignant messages, Graham and Ellie make a true connection, sharing intimate details about their lives, hopes and fears. But they don't tell each other everything; Graham doesn't know the major secret hidden in Ellie's family tree, and Ellie is innocently unaware that Graham is actually a world-famous teen actor living in Los Angeles.

When the location for the shoot of Graham's new film falls through, he sees an opportunity to take their relationship from online to in-person, managing to get the production relocated to picturesque Henley, Maine, where Ellie lives. But can a star as famous as Graham have a real relationship with an ordinary girl like Ellie? And why does Ellie's mom want her to avoid the media's spotlight at all costs?

Just as they did in The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, the hands of fate intervene in wondrous ways in this YA novel that delivers on high concept romance in lush and thoughtful prose.

I'm not going to deny it. I adore The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, the book which catapulted Jennifer E. Smith into the stratosphere of the contemporary young adult scene. I get all misty-eyed and hazy-brained when I think about it because all I want to do is delve in and experience it all over again. And the moment I saw This Is What Happy Looks Like at the bookshop, I just knew it had to bring it home with me. It was worth the hefty price tag of high expectation; it was worth the rearranging of my entire shelf to accommodate its chunky size. It had to be.

The premise of This Is What Happy Looks Like is perfect rom-com material. An accidental email flung halfway across a continent brings two very different people together. Graham’s a movie star out of his depth in Hollywood, fighting to be the good guy amid all the perils of fame, and the anonymity of email is a lifeline for him. Ellie has reasons for staying out of the spotlight, tucked away in a seaside corner of Maine, but when Graham starts shooting his latest film in her hometown of Henley, she’s forced to make a choice. Save herself from slow suffocation in the safest place she’s ever known, or really strive to achieve dreams which are more than what the little town has to offer her.

Unfortunately, it seems as if Jennifer E. Smith has failed to replicate in this book the incredible balance of pace and character she managed in her last one. There’s still real warmth and even a flash of brilliance or two, but I was simply left feeling as if I needed something more.

The book opens with the infamous accidental email and this was a great start for me. I love the use of email as a plot device and I always have. The characters were established immediately, without preamble, fuss or extraneous explanation. Ellie was strong and smart and so easy to relate to. I didn't fall head over heels for Graham the way I'm used to with stories like this, but his genuine personality really suited the book and he was really very sweet.

There’s surprising depth to the book’s sub-plots, too. Readers wondering where Ellie’s father is will more than get their answer. There’s a typical case of the wanton ex involved when it comes to the many obstacles blocking Ellie and Graham’s path to each other but I was more interested in the absence of parents in his life. Several of these sub-plots are really put on the back burner for most of the book, but I found myself eagerly awaiting their outcome as I read on.

Even without falling for the hero, there’s a lot to love about this book. I loved the setting, which was perfectly pitched as a kitsch seaside town without the usual stereotypes. It could have easily been generic and unappetizing but there’s detail galore and I really felt for Ellie as she contemplated leaving in order to attend the poetry course she’s been aspiring to since she was barely a teenager.

In particular, I loved Jennifer E. Smith's prose. I've always enjoyed her writing and it was great to see her trademark style return. It’s clean, crisp and immediate, never vague but always tactful. I couldn't fault the storytelling; it was the story that let me down.

The main problem I had with this book was that nothing really happened. There was a lack of confrontation, an ease with which Smith glossed over some of the more important aspects of the novel and a gradual slowing of pace which just didn't appeal to me. The supporting characters were vivid, but I didn't connect with them – especially Quinn, Ellie's supposed best friend.

In short: Placed alongside her last book, Jennifer E. Smith’s This Is What Happy Looks Like is the literary equivalent of marshmallow; thick and sugary but liable to leave you feeling just a little queasy. A solid four-star rating, however, because I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a sweet summer read with depth this year.



  1. I've seen very mixed reviews on this one, but I have to admit that I'm solidly intrigued by it in terms of summer reads. I really need a good, fun, engaging summer read, and this might just fit the bill for me! Fantastic review, Arianne!

  2. Thanks, Melissa! This Is What Happy Looks Like is definitely worth a try - it's written really well and it's not just a 'light and fluffy' summer read. I hope you enjoy it a little more than I did :)

  3. Liz @ Planet Print8 August 2013 at 00:14

    I did like this book, but it definitely wasn't as good as TSPoLaFS. And I agree that not a lot happened! But it was cute and gave me this warm fuzzy feeling, even if it wasn't as developed as it could have been. Great review!

  4. It was definitely cute, Liz! The book fell short in some other areas, but not when it came to being cute and sweet :)

  5. I've heard much made of Smith's work but have yet to read any of her novels. I do have The Probability of Love At First Sight on my Kindle so I can only hope that my first foray into her work will be positive :)

    I've seen mixed reviews for This Is What Happy Looks Like, but I love the concept and the fact that it reminds me quite a bit of the romantic comedies I grew up watching on the big screen. While I've heard that a certain suspension of disbelief is necessary in order to enjoy it, I don't have an issue with that as sometimes all you're really looking for is a light-hearted, sweet read to pick you up when you're down. From what I've heard about Smith's writing, that's something at which she definitely excels.

  6. LOL love the marshmallow comparison, I so know what you mean! I know it let you down a bit but it still sounds great.However what you have really done is made me push The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight up higher on my priority list. Indeed to get to that one ASAP.

  7. Glad you enjoyed this one for the most part, Arianne. Jennifer E. Smith's books really appeal to me in theory - they sound super cute, but my one reading experience of her (SPOLAFS) wasn't great. Hopefully this one will work out better for me when I eventually get around to it! :)

  8. I'm sure it will, Leanna! Maybe it'll be the reverse of what it was for me - you were let down by TSPOLAFS but you'll adore TISWHLL?! (Jennifer E. Smith always comes up with the best abbreviations.)

  9. I haven't read much reviews for this one, but like you, I absolutely adored The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, so will probably give this one a read too. I've read a contemporary adult fiction with a similar premise, so I'm intrigued to see how this one will play itself out. Lovely review Arianne! :)


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