Hardcover, 416 pages.
Release date: April 4th 2013.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
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.