Review: This Is What Happy Looks Like

This Is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith. Poppy, an imprint of Little, Brown. 2013. Review from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: An email sent to the wrong person results in an email friendship between two teens. They talk about everything — except their names and who they are. Oh, some stray details are mentioned, like where they live. He lives in California, she lives in Maine.

“He” happens to be teenage actor Graham Larkin. And he’s fallen hard for the girl he knows only through emails. From a few details in her emails, he figures out what small town in Maine she lives in and has managed to arrange for his latest movie to be filmed there. An entire summer with the girl of his dreams.

Ellie doesn’t realize she’s been sharing so much with a movie star. All she knows is the summer is going to be even more crowded, with the combination of tourists and a movie filming. She hates the crowds and the photographers.

Will Graham and Ellie connect in real life, the way they have in email?

The Good: Smith’s earlier book, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, was one of my favorite books from last year so I was looking forward to this one. I won’t keep you in suspense — This is What Happy Looks Like does not disappoint!

This Is What Happy Looks Like is a romance, and (to me at least) the key to romance is a watching the couple fall in love. Of course, it can’t be too easy — that would be boring! So what creates the tension, the “will they or won’t be”? Again, it has to be real, not artificial, and it can’t be something that makes either person look bad.

Graham and Ellie are in two different places in life, and it’s not just that Graham is a Famous! Movie! Star! It’s that, even though at seventeen he is only a year older than Ellie, he’s independent. He’s in a career he loves, he’s finished his schooling, he’s living on his own. Ellie, meanwhile, is going into his senior year at high school. She lives at home, with her mother — her father is out of the picture. Money is tight and her dream is to attend an August program at Harvard so she’s working two jobs.

When Graham shows up at the ice cream place where Ellie works, he asks out the cute girl with the name “Ellie” embroidered on her work shirt. Problem is? It’s Ellie’s shirt, yes, but the person wearing it is Ellie’s’ best friend.

Aha, you may think! This is the tension. He’s asked out Ellie’s friend.

No! One reason I love Smith as an author is she doesn’t do the expected, the easy. So, here, yes there is a mix up but (spoilers) it’s resolved rather easily. The tension that keeps the two apart is that Ellie is a bit overwhelmed by Graham’s celebrity. Remember, he has had time to prepare to meet her in real life. She has not. It also turns out that Ellie is camera-shy and very private, for some very personal reasons. Her secrets don’t just create a problem with Graham. They also end up creating problems with her best friend, Quinn. The intense email correspondence? Something she hadn’t shared with Quinn, and Quinn is hurt by that.

And as for Graham, while he appears to have everything he could ever want, it turns out that he’s lonely. His super fast rise to fame means he is a bit isolated from those around him.

Yes, this is a romance, Ellie’s and Graham’s romance. But it’s also the story of friendship and trust. Graham has to learn to be a friend to Ellie, and Ellie has to learn to trust Graham.

Also — I had so much fun reading all the movie details! Graham’s fame came from playing the second lead in a popular teen trilogy, and I laughed at the parallels to certain current big movie franchises. What I also liked is that those in the industry, those who Graham is working with, are all rather decent people. This is not about learning that making movies isn’t a life to have; it’s not about the people in the industry being shallow or back-stabbing. Rather, they are real: so, yes, one of the movie stars isn’t happy being stuck in a small Maine town all summer. Because it’s a job, some of the people are demanding of Graham, treating him like the adult he is.

Other reviews:  Alexa Reviews Books; Forever Young Adult; A Backwards Story.



3 thoughts on “Review: This Is What Happy Looks Like

  1. Well now I feel obligated to read this book and The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight. Two more books to add to my ever growing list. Thanks a lot. (AKA your review was amazing I can’t wait to read this book).


  2. I couldn’t agree more with this review. My 14-year-old daughter picked up “This Is What Happy Looks Like” this summer (at the Eight Cousins bookstore in Falmouth, Massachusetts). She’s not an avid reader, but this book caught her attention. She read it all the way through, so I picked it up to see the attraction. And that was my Saturday because I couldn’t stop reading. Then my daughter and I both moved onto Smith’s first book, which we both loved. Hadley, especially, felt so real to us, and the pain of her father’s choice resonated strongly. Her forgiveness of him felt right.

    I’m in awe of this author’s gift at portraying real, true emotion. Her particular genius is summoning up the feeling for readers of falling in love.


  3. Kymberlee, thanks! And my own TBR pile — so scary and constantly being reshuffled.

    Christine, thanks! One thing I like about Smith’s books is they sound high concept (a day in the airport terminal! an email from a movie star!) but they are so much more than that: like you note, real, true emotions.


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