Ellie O'Neill and Graham Larkin don't know each other at all. Ellie is the daughter of an ex-waitress turned shop owner in the backwoods town of Henley, Maine. Graham is an all American kid turned movie star from California. The two have nothing at all in common (except perhaps a love for Charlotte's Web) until Graham mistypes a single email address, hits send, and it winds up in Ellie's inbox way on the other side of the country. His misplaced missive ignites what evolves into a lively correspondence in which the two teenagers exchange jokes, detail their day-to-day goings on, their hopes, their dreams, and ruminate on what "happy" looks like. Neither of them quite realize how much the burgeoning virtual friendship means to them until the location for Graham's upcoming rom-com falls through, and he finds himself suggesting Henley as a possible alternative. And with that one act, he somewhat wittingly, somewhat unwittingly sets the two of them on a collision course. The results are both enlightening and unexpectedly fraught as Graham finds a kind of home in the most unlikely of places and Ellie grapples with a secret she promised never to tell. Soon Graham's time in Henley will be up. And where will they go from there?
This is What Happy Looks Like has a great deal of charm going for it. Graham and Ellie are eminently likable. The lovable happenstance of their "meeting" is difficult to resist. And the small-town Maine setting is one I've enjoyed in the past and that is once again used to great effect here. Smith's writing is capable and occasionally lovely, if not as consistently so as it was in The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight. One of the lovelier observations here (taken from my uncorrected ARC):
No matter how long it's been or how far you've drifted, no matter how unknowable you might be, there were at least two people in the world whose job it was to see you, to find you, to recognize you and reel you back in. No matter what.I feel that one of Jennifer E. Smith's real strengths is the upfront, sensitive way in which she depicts families. Her characters' romantic entanglements are not resolved in place of their familial relationships, but as a result of their dealing with them first. Sometimes the one unfolds along with the other, and often they help one another work through their baggage. What I'm saying is their priorities are generally in order, and I dig that about Smith's characters (and her books). Like Hadley, Ellie struggles with father issues. These issues are, in fact, meant to be pivotal to the story. But where Hadley's felt incredibly real and meaningful to me, Ellie's rarely cross the border from the tepid into the profound. So when the plot takes a turn to explore that vein, I felt ambivalent when I should have been riveted. As for Ellie and Graham, I liked them all right. But I never truly fell for them in a way that made me unable to look away. They are both good people. They're good and they're well-intentioned and they're dedicated to achieving their goals for the future. I was happy that they found one another. I wanted them to find a way to be together. I just didn't feel compelled to stick around and watch it happen. They "looked" like happy to me, if you will, but they failed to inspire the real emotion behind the exterior. In the end, This is What Happy Looks Like has all the key elements of a competent, if somewhat bland romantic comedy, but it lacks that certain spark that makes it a keeper.
This is What Happy Looks Like is due out April 2nd.