This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: April 2, 2013
Publisher: Poppy (Hachette Books)
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: Summer, fate, celebrities, secrets
Format read: ARC paperback from Publisher. (Thank you!)
Summary: A wrongly addressed email leads to an unlikely friendship between Graham and Ellie, who share a ton of details with each other but never their names. While Ellie lives in a small town in Maine with her mom, Graham is actually a huge Hollywood heartthrob. When his next filming location falls through, Graham decides to test fate and gets the production to move to Ellie’s hometown, where they will hopefully meet once and for all.
It’s kind of surreal to think one tiny blunder could have the power to totally change your life, isn’t it?
This is exactly what happens when Graham’s email about his pet pig accidentally pops up in Ellie’s inbox. A funny whoops leads to an unexpected friendship, where Graham and Ellie eagerly swap emails about small details of their lives, intimately getting to know each other without exchanging names.
Because if they did exchange names, Ellie would immediately recognize Graham as the Graham Larkin and really, what’s the point of names anyway? It’s not like they will ever meet, or these emails will amount to any more than a total highlight to their days. Right? But Graham uses his status to his advantage and when the opportunity comes up to spend a summer shooting a film in Ellie’s hometown, he makes it happen. It’s almost farcical when we find out Ellie’s frustrated that a film crew is disrupting her beloved town’s summer, and Graham is wondering what is going to happen when he finally introduces himself to the girl, the only girl, he feels really knows him.
(Oh, the pressure and zany missteps that lead to their meeting!)
In Jennifer E. Smith’s fourth YA novel, she takes a once in a lifetime occurrence and writes it as if it is the most natural thing in the world. Lyrical prose transported me to that small (“where everyone knows your name”) sea town and had me salivating for all the sight and sounds and feels of summer: the unbearable heat, the relief of a swim, the ice cream, the stars, and the bubbling possibilities. There’s a delicate yet smooth rhythm to this book that reminded me much of her second, You Are Here. Graham and Ellie are two characters who are both going through an internal exploration: the aftermath of his fame and what he really wants for himself while she is haunted by a secret that her and her mom have buried and her need to stay in control, even when she needs to ask for help. (This secret? Not a fan of this sub-story line, and kept me wondering, right through the end, how necessary it really was. Didn’t Graham and Ellie have enough hurdles without this?)
One common thread between Smith’s work, one I believe sets her apart in the young adult genre, is the way she crafts relationships between her characters. They are not solely based on chemistry and attraction, and much of the time, are built upon something so much more: shared interests and bonding over silly yet important details; there is a certain amount of maturity given to these characters and friendship becomes the root of any romance. The possibility of Graham and Ellie working out feels that much truer because of it.
It’s true that This is What Happy Looks Like is not The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight. It took some time for me to adjust my own expectations accordingly because timing wise, that 24-hour window we had in Stat doesn’t exist here, making the feel of these books so unbelievably different. The urgency, the intensity softens in Happy to more of a lull, to gorgeous, quiet moments that encompass a lot of introspection from both sides, as well as off-camera communication through emails (an added layer I loved).
I have the utmost respect for Smith’s writing and I don’t mind calling myself a Jennifer E. Smith cheerleader. Last year, I read every single one of her books and I found them each to be so refreshing and more delightful than the last (Great settings, personal challenges, romance, and dimensional family dynamics!). I appreciate that she took some risk in Happy, especially after coming off the (well-deserved) success of Stat. I love how she builds on such serendipitous instances, while steadily writing about relatable themes without underestimating her reader.