Monday, 6 January 2014

Jennifer E. Smith: This Is What Happy Looks Like

When 17-year-old Graham Larkin sends an email to a friend about his pet pig, Wilbur, the last thing he expects is a response from the other side of the country, from one Ellie O'Neill. As their online friendship blossoms, they begin to reveal more about themselves but crucially leave out the truth about Ellie's past and Graham's career as a Hollywood heartthrob. And when a new location needs to be found for Graham's next film, he jumps at the chance to visit Ellie's hometown, Henley, Maine. But, now that they're together, it's impossible to keep their secrets for long and there's a lot to overcome if love is to blossom...

Before I read This Is What Happy Looks Like I had seen a tonne of reviews describing it as unique and romantic, with a lot of comparisons to John Green's novels. As a fan of John Green and a desire for a romance without all the usual clichés I was like... Yes! This is the book for me! The cover looked cool and the title sounded fun - and I definitely wanted a bit of fun to chase away the post-Christmas January blues. Unfortunately, it only took me the first few chapters to realise that this is absolutely nothing like a John Green novel, nor is it unique in terms of its romantic plot. The style of writing isn't quirky or interesting like I was expecting and I didn't laugh out loud once. Basically, this is what boring looks like - someone should write to the publishers about this major case of false advertising. 

There was no immediacy in the writing and I ended up skim reading bits - AND I AM NOT USUALLY A SKIM READER. The sentences dragged on as the author interrupted the present for explanations about the character's pasts. There's a little technique I have heard about called 'show don't tell', and a good author uses it. Smith uses too much description and tells us how the characters feel without really showing us; because of this I didn't feel any kind of connection with either character and their personalities weren't strong or distinctive enough. The narrative structure is split between third person Ellie and third person Graham; personally, I would have either written it in the first person and given each character a more distinctive voice, or I would have scrapped Graham's side of the story all together and written it all from Ellie's POV. Not a lot actually happens in the book, nor does anything really get resolved, and while some could argue that this gives the story an element of realism, the characters just aren't interesting enough to carry a thin plot line. Due to the split narrative, some aspects of the plot were described twice from different view points, and as they were boring enough the first time around, I really didn't appreciate having to read about them again. If it had been written from only Ellie or Graham's POV it would have been less repetitive and perhaps freed up some time for a bit more excitement in the plot. 

Whoever labelled this story as unique really tricked me - they must have written the review on April Fools Day or something. It's a merge of a tween Disney movie like Starstruck and You've Got Mail, and there is countless fan fiction out there about a girl who meets a famous guy; the guy's interested in the girl because she's like... totally real and could never be interested in celebrity culture at all and wouldn't fangirl over anyone. It's certainly not a unique story line and it actually felt like a bit of a kick in the teeth, like the author was criticising anyone who would dare get excited about meeting a celebrity or the world of fandom. Johnny Depp once shot scenes from a movie near my sleepy little village and the place was buzzing about it. Does that make us all shallow? According to the author, it does. I understand that perhaps living the life of a celebrity can be very taxing at times due to the lack of control over the paparazzi (this aspect of the story is probably the only bit that deserves any praise), but on the other hand it also felt like a criticism of anyone who, god forbid, might just recognise a celebrity - lack of anonymity is kind of the point and it's also a lifestyle choice. Like it or lump it that's my motto. 

Finally, the novel ended on a complete anti-climax; I did hope for a build up to something big but it never came and I finished it with only feelings of disappointment and a little bit of anger. It had so much potential when I read the blurb and fell completely flat. Don't be fooled by the John Green comparisons people, cos this author doesn't have a fraction of his talent. I know that's harsh, but considering the amount of criticism the author offers in the book, I really don't feel guilty about dishing it back. 

Rating: *