It’s June – seventeen-year-old Ellie O’Neill’s least favourite time of year. Her tiny hometown is annually invaded by tourists, and this year there’s the added inconvenience of a film crew. Even the arrival of Hollywood heartthrob Graham Larkin can’t lift her mood.
But there is something making Ellie very happy. Ever since an email was accidentally sent to her a few months ago, she’s been corresponding with a mysterious stranger, the two of them sharing their hopes and fears. Their developing relationship is not without its secrets though – there’s the truth about Ellie’s past . . . and her pen pal’s real identity. When they finally meet in person, things are destined to get much more complicated. Can two people, worlds apart but brought together by chance, make it against all the odds?
When I was fourteen, my friends and I discovered Take That. This was around the time that their second album was released and we were smitten. I wasn’t a complete teenie-bopper, fan-girl, but we watched and read everything we could find about them. One of the things we did was make up scenarios where we’d unexpectedly run into them in the wild and of course we’d be swept off our feet by whichever one of the guys we liked best at the time. We’d meet like normal people, not superstar and fan, and we’d fall head over heels in love – stop laughing, you in the back, I was fourteen! Don’t judge me. – anyway, we had great fun coming up with scenarios, one even more unlikely than the next. Why the embarrassing confession? Because the premise for This is What Happy Looks Like brought those memories vividly back to the fore and it could easily have been a basis for one of those fantasies – if email had been as easily accessible – and it wouldn’t even have been far-fetched. In fact, this is a storybook romance that could come true in real life, not just in fiction. Even better, Jennifer E. Smith doesn’t make the story into a fairy-tale romance about two perfect people, but creates a story about two people who each have their flaws and their secrets. And while they both have secrets that might be a little out there, at the core This is What Happy Looks Like is about relationships, about friendship, and about making hard choices. Do they get a happily-ever-after? I don’t know, but they do end up the better for having met and known each other.
While ostensibly This is What Happy Looks Like is about Ellie and Graham and their blossoming relationship, I’m convinced it deals with love and friendship in general and how hard it is to balance your needs and desires with those of the other party and the importance of communication. Ellie and her best friend Quinn; Ellie and her mum; Ellie and her dad; Graham and his parents; Graham and his manager Harry; these are all relationships that play a large part in the book, whether it’s their absence or their complexity, they all influence the way the story plays out. I loved the dynamics between Ellie and her mum; the way her mum would sacrifice everything for Ellie and how this actually backfires as Ellie, aware of this fact, doesn’t actually ask her for help, but tries to solve things on her own, because she doesn’t want to burden her mum. Similarly, I felt so much for Graham and his parents, the divide his fame has created between them, due to their assumptions about what he wanted and their own thwarted desires for his future. In both cases communication would have solved stuff so much faster.
Despite this broader scope to the story, the narrative is told through the lens of the relationship between Ellie and Graham. And what a lovely lens it is. Funny, poignant, exciting and sweet, this is one relationship you can’t help but root for. Both Ellie and Graham are well-drawn characters, who come alive not just through a regular narrative but the email exchanges interspersed throughout the book. These were lovely and quite funny and you could feel the flirtatious energy spark between them. Their chemistry is completely believable and quite wonderful. Of course, their romance knows several obstacles, in the form of the truth about Ellie’s parentage, Graham’s co-star Olivia, and that dream summer course Ellie wants to follow at Harvard. Smith doesn’t let Graham wave his Hollywood magic wand and solve everything. No, he supports Ellie in her quest to solve it herself and aids her in any way he can, while letting her take the lead, which I appreciated a lot.
This is Was Happy Looks Like was a fabulous read and if the sun ever comes out and gives us spring and summer, this will be a perfect book for a lazy, sunny day as you’ll want to finish it in one go. Entertaining and feel-good, I can see this giving one of the Hollywood romcoms a run for their money if anyone is ever smart enough to pick up the rights. I know I’d watch it! For fans of YA and romantic tales This is What Happy Looks Like is one of the can’t-miss-books of 2013!
This book was provided for review by the publisher.