Monday, June 17, 2013
Book Review: This Is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith
When teenage heartthrob Graham Larkin accidentally sends Ellie O'Neill an email about his pet pig, the two seventeen-year-olds strike up a remarkably witty and unforgettable correspondence, sharing everything about their lives and forging a bond they've never experienced before--even if they only know the other person's initials. Then Graham discovers that Ellie's small hometown in Maine is the perfect location for his next movie, and he decides to seek out the girl from his emails in the flesh. But can a movie star who constantly lives in the harsh glare of the spotlight really have an ordinary relationship with a small-town girl like Ellie?
I find that the characters in these kinds of books are of paramount importance in the novel. After all, if you have boring or unlikable protagonists, the entire story falls flat. And who wants to read about the lives of mean/whiny/dull people anyway? Fortunately, both Graham and Ellie are incredibly interesting and compelling characters with their own unique personalities and backgrounds, and I think Ms. Smith has definitely hit the mark with developing complex and endearing protagonists. I'll be honest with you and say that I didn't really pay close attention to the blurb before reading the book, so when I read the opening set of emails between Graham and Ellie, I didn't really even know that Graham was a movie star (oops, I know). So the very first impression I got of his character was that he was a witty, nice guy with a pet pig of all animals. I think if I'd known that he was a famous heartthrob will girls swooning over him, I might've been inclined to think he was arrogant on the outside, with a sweeter side to him, but the book itself thankfully never leaned towards that cliche! Graham is an undeniably sweet, caring character who deals with the downsides of being a well-known actor, someone who, at times, misses what being normal is like. And what I loved about him was that he was such an easy-going guy--not to mention protective!
Ellie is also undoubtedly a sweet, likable main character who, unlike Graham, lives a pretty normal life. She works at the ice cream store in her small town, loves to read poetry, and is living with her single mom. But what made her a really complex and truly interesting character, I think, was the fact that Ms. Smith wove in a backstory to Ellie that set her apart from the rest of the Auden-reading, ice cream-scooping girls. Ellie's struggle to raise money for her summer poetry camp at Harvard was coupled nicely with the fact that her biological father, a well-off politician, was never a huge part of her life. I also think that Ellie's and Graham's personalities worked very well together, and you could just tell why they were so attracted to one another in the first place. They're both witty and funny, yet at the same time possess the ability to take things seriously. In this way, it's easy to see how Graham and Ellie are kind of perfect for each other, despite the vast differences in their backgrounds.
I've read a couple of reviews of "This Is What Happy Looks Like" where other readers have said that nothing much really happens in the story. While this might be true in the conventional sense (i.e. there are no high octane adventures or daring coups against a dystopian government), the novel is rich in the emotional sense, which can be found in the growth of Graham and Ellie as individuals and as a pair. What also really enhanced this was Ms. Smith's beautiful writing. Her language is evocative without being purple, and brought magic to the ordinary. Her descriptions of the sea, or the way people gathered together to celebrate the Fourth of July, were elegant yet simple, and I found myself enchanted by her version of a small town in Maine.
Overall, "This Is What Happy Looks Like" is a sweet and simple novel about the emotional growths of two very different, yet very similar, teenagers. The evocative writing brings the story to life, and it is undoubtedly the perfect book to bring to the poolside on those bright summer days!