This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E Smith
Ellie O’Neill is seventeen and living with her mum in the small coastal town of Henley, Maine. It’s the summer holidays and she’s working two jobs to save money for a poetry class at Harvard that she’s been accepted into in August. When a Hollywood movie crew arrive to film scenes for a new romantic movie, Ellie doesn’t have much time to take notice of it all, unlike her best friend Quinn whom she works with at the ice cream parlour, who’s weak at the knees at seeing gorgeous young celebrity actor Graham Larkin, one of the stars of the film.
What Ellie doesn’t realise is that she already knows Graham Larkin, the seventeen-year-old movie star made famous from his lead role in a trilogy of movies about a magician. She’s been emailing him since March, when he accidentally sent her an email asking her to walk his pet pig, Wilbur. She replied to tell him he’d got the wrong person, and a flirty, friendly ongoing conversation began. While neither told the other their name, they shared many other details about their lives, details that were both vague and deeply personal all at once.
From these emails, Graham pieced together where exactly Ellie lived, and that she worked at an ice cream parlour. When the original location for the film fell through, Graham managed to convince the director to try Henley, Maine instead. Graham wants to meet Ellie. She doesn’t know who he is or what his life is really like, and because of that he’s been able to talk to her as if he were a regular teenager, not a celebrity.
When Ellie meets Graham in the flesh, she’s torn. A part of her misses the emails they shared, the mystery of it all. Part of her wants to know him better, spend more time with him. And a part of her – the reasonable, clear-headed part – knows just how important it is for her to stay away from cameras, which makes dating Graham Larkin – who is always stalked by paparazzi – an impossibility. It’s not just for her, but for her mother as well, who moved them up here when Ellie was five in order to escape the press and the stress of being watched, but also to protect Ellie’s father. And it’s this kind of secret that comes between Ellie and Graham now, a secret that seems impossible to overcome.
I greatly enjoyed Smith’s previous novel, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, which was fast- and smoothly-paced, tightly written, poignant and thoughtful. I was excited to get her new book, and after reading a very heavy Israeli novel, a book with a title like this seemed just the thing for me. And while I still greatly respect and admire Smith’s writing, the maturity of her characters and their ability to grow, and her avoidance of the usual clichés, I did find that this novel was missing something, for me. Some spark of magic, or chemistry, or oomph. I’m not sure what exactly, only that I was left feeling a bit disappointed.
There is much to enjoy here, nevertheless. The emails at the start are fun to read, and both Ellie and Graham are likeable and sympathetic characters who are learning independence and how to balance their conflicting wants. Graham, after the surprise of landing his first major acting role when he’d just been goofing around in the school play, finds himself really enjoying the job of acting, and wants to do it for as long as he’s interested in it, even though his parents, both ordinary, unadventurous middle class teachers, want him to go to university instead. He lives with his pet pig, Wilbur, alone in a big house in Los Angeles, and finds himself isolated by his celebrity status. His parents seem uncomfortable in his world, and treat him like visiting royalty – a stranger, in other words – when he goes home to see them, so he’s started avoiding them. Graham is young, and new to it all, and has a fan base of screaming teenage girls, so he’s got a long road ahead of him in terms of balancing a career in the film industry with having any sense of normalcy in his personal life.
Ellie is a strong heroine, intelligent and thoughtful but her moments of great maturity are balanced by her moments of adolescent drama – which aren’t often but they do happen. Though I must add that I found her a bit, well, cold. She was just so very confident and “together”. I found it hard to feel much interest, or sympathy, for her family secret, and felt a bit resentful on her behalf about it all. It also seemed a bit, well, tacky, and rather irrelevant. I would have quite happily cut that part out completely. But Ellie knows how to hold her own, even if she is rather serious about everything. (I liked Ellie, but I think I liked Graham more; aside from anything else, he just seemed a bit more human than she did.)
I don’t know how realistic the premise of their original meeting is, or whether we should be romanticising it. Too many girls get trapped or taken advantage of or worse, through anonymous online communication of various kinds. Granted, Ellie is clearly too smart to fall for an online stalker or creepy pervert masquerading as someone younger, but still, she never really had any doubts about continuing to communicate with some unknown person half a country away. And true, they never discussed meeting in person, never went from slightly flirty to anything more overt, never wanted to exchange photos. But still, it’s one area where I feel a great deal of caution around, because the mystery of it all makes it very tantalising to the teenage mind.
This is a lot longer than Smith’s previous novel, and I found it a bit slow. It works in the sense that you get the chance to get to know the characters and understand them, but there just wasn’t a whole lot else going on. I’m also unconvinced as to Ellie and Graham’s chemistry. I just didn’t really feel it. Perhaps because Ellie was so sensible and oh so mature, and perhaps because, like Ellie, it was a bit anticlimactic to meet someone in the flesh whom you’ve created as a certain person in your head while texting back and forth, all this time. As I mentioned, it’s the mystery – the romance of the mystery – that appeals, but once the mystery is solved, well, then it’s more of a struggle to remain interested. (The mystery isn’t much of one to the reader, but you still pick up on their feelings about it.)
They always felt like real people, Ellie and Graham (though not, perhaps, as flawed as real people), and their friendship and budding romance was realistic – not rushed, not instant, but cautious and tender and a bit anxious too, lit with possibilities, not certainties – and the romance was not really the point of the story: growing up and figuring things out, was. As such, it was a successful novel, a solid chapter in adolescent life, but while I did like it, I did find it lacking in oomph. And that, for me, with this book, was a critical ingredient in making me care. Instead, I found the novel – which I read a couple of weeks or so before writing this review – to be sadly forgettable, especially in the details. I couldn’t even remember the characters’ names. Smith is a strong writer and I like her style and the characters she creates, but I just wasn’t all that interested in this particular story.
“This is What Happy Looks Like is an adorable novel, but it also taps into the serious side of teenage life. … [A] wonderful novel to begin your summer with.” The Pretty Books
“If I had to choose one word to describe THIS IS WHAT HAPPY LOOKS LIKE, it would be: cute. Fantastically, adorably, cute. Jennifer E. Smith has this amazing talent of really making you believe in fate and chance and especially love.” Readers in Wonderland
“To sum it up really quickly: I did not enjoy this novel. I thought it was overly cheesy, kinda boring, and way longer than it needed to be.” YA Booklover Blog
“As a true hopeless romantic, the ‘normal girl meets and falls in love with a famous boy’ story makes my heart flutter. No matter how cliché, I really enjoy reading stories like it. And yet… This Is What Happy Looks Like is just lackluster in everything. … The characters were all right, and the concept held some appeal to me, but it desperately failed in the execution and overall in the plot.” Snuggly Oranges
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