Sunday, September 15, 2013

This Is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith

It all begins with an errant email sent one night by an unknown person,GDL824, to sixteen year old Ellie O'Neill. It turns out that person is a seventeen year old boy who lives in California with his pet pig, Wilbur. What follows are a series of emails that continue on through a period of three months in which EONeill and GDL824 establish an online friendship.

Unbeknownst to Ellie, her secret admirer is none other than teen hearthrob, actor Graham Larkin. And what's more, is that Graham has managed to convince his producer to move the location of his next movie to the small town of Henley, Maine where his unknown correspondent lives.

Graham and his costars are booked into the Henley Inn and with his arrival come the hordes of paparazzi. Meanwhile, Ellie and her best friend Quinn try to go about their jobs at Sprinkles, while Ellie also works at her mother's gift shop.

In a chance meeting, Graham enters Sprinkles after Ellie leaves and sees Quinn wearing Ellie's shirt with her name on it. He assumes Quinn is Ellie and asks her out to dinner. Graham quickly learns during his date with Quinn the truth about Ellie and sets off to meet her at her house. However, when Graham shows up at Ellie's house and identifies himself as the person she was corresponding, with Ellie is stunned and embarrassed. Ellie is reluctant at first to become involved with Graham because she is struggling to come to terms with the fact that she has been corresponding with such a famous person.
"Most girls, she knew, would be delighted to find out they'd been corresponding with a movie star. But to Ellie, it just seemed unfair. She wanted nothing more than to spend time with GDL824 this afternoon. It was Graham Larkin she wasn't so sure about."
Ellie is also reluctant to get involved with such a high profile person because of her past - or more specifically her mother's past. Ellie is the illegitimate daughter of a well known senator Paul Whitman, who is considering a run for the United States presidency. When her mother found herself pregnant and abandoned years ago, she fled to the small town of Henley, Maine to live a reclusive life. Ellie's potential involvement with Graham Larkin and being pursued by paparazzi is sure to uncover her family's secret.

Despite Ellie's fears, the following day Graham manages to convince her to meet him at a cove. Gradually Ellie's attraction to Graham returns and they begin to meet secretly, their attraction as real as it was online. But Ellie wonders how can two people with such different lives ever be together? And how can she still see Graham and protect her mother's privacy too?

This novel started out wonderfully with a prologue featuring the emails sent between Graham and Ellie. They are sweet and witty, drawing the reader quickly into the story. A young woman who is unknowingly corresponding with teen heartthrob and movie star makes for a great romantic beginning. However, the way Graham and Ellie actually meet is rather creepy when he simply shows up at her house. It also seemed somewhat unrealistic that a major movie star (as Graham Larkin is described in the novel) would spill all the details of his secret correspondence with an unknown girl he is trying to find (Ellie) to her friend (Quinn), a person he also doesn't really know. One would think that "discretion being the better part of valour", Graham would have kept his surprise to himself, having already discovered the identity of his online friend and then discreetly learned what he needed to know from Quinn.

From this point on, the novel seemed to drag. Quinn's behaviour towards Ellie was irritating and immature - amazingly she expected her friend to tell her everything about her life and when she didnt' she dumps her. Yet later on when more important information about Ellie is revealed, Quinn seems incredibly ambivalent. The lengthy episode involving Ellie and Graham stealing a boat used in the filming did little to further the storyline or the relationship between Graham and Ellie. While most readers will be happy with the ending of the novel, it was for the most part, predictable and somewhat flat - a sweet uncomplicated finale.

This Is What Happy Looks Like did have some interesting characters that readers will enjoy. Ellie is a good student who hopes to attend Harvard and who reads poetry. She wasn't star-struck by Graham because she was able to develop a friendship with him first and saw past his public persona. Though Ellie is a likable character, she wasn't a strong one. She wanted to date Graham but under certain conditions that weren't very realistic (no cameras, no publicity) although Graham tries his best. She had to know that her secret would be discovered eventually and in this regard she was naive. When her mother learns of her relationship with Graham she coerces Ellie into breaking off with him. This could have been a source of major conflict between Ellie and her mother, yet it wasn't developed as much as it could have been. Instead, Ellie seems to accept her mother's views of what will happen and her mother's cynicism towards famous men, in her decision to break up with Graham. There's no real struggle by Ellie to make a case for her own life and her own choices and that things might work out differently for her.

Graham is a sweet, charming guy who hasn't yet been corrupted by stardom. It's obvious his sudden rise to fame has been hard on him and his family but again that source of conflict was only briefly touched on. Graham's wit makes for interesting dialogue at times making him a quite genuine and romantic character. Smith does a good job of portraying what it must be like to be hounded by paparazzi on a daily basis with Graham's run-in with a photographer.

Ellie's mother Margaret seemed to have given up everything for a bit of privacy that in the end didn't last. As a person who wanted to change the world, she ends up running a dumpy gift shop in a small town. No wonder she is cynical and over-protective of Ellie. Ellie's mother shows us that sometimes life doesn't always work out the way we planned.

Overall, what could have been a very good novel became just a sweet story about two nice people who managed to spend some weeks in the summer together in a nice little town. This Is What Happy Looks Like was disappointing, overly long and without much substance. A promising novel that just quite never delivers.

Book Details:
This Is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith
New York: Little, Brown & Company     2013
404 pp.

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