This is what happy looks like.
Birthday presents, snuggling under handmade afghans, cardboard box forts, spot-on Sphinx impressions, slaves feeding you strawberries, and This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith.
Author: Jennifer E. Smith
Genre: Young Adult (Realistic Fiction)
Publisher: Poppy Books
Pub Date: April 02, 2013
Hardcover: 404 pages
Is There a Pooka In This Book?: I’d really need to know more about the pig.
Pooka Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Nibbles
After reading Smith’s book, I was blissfully happy. Not challenged, not enriched, and not pensive… but happy.
2014 does not seem to be my year for mature, advanced reading but I have to say that I am definitely enjoying myself.
This is What Happy Looks Like is about an everyday, normal, poetry-loving, ice-cream scooping, penny-saving, red-haired, long-limbed, freckle-nosed seventeen-year-old girl, living in nowhere Maine, named Ellie O’Connor. She mistakenly receives an e-mail one day from someone requesting that she “take Wilbur for a walk”, as this mystery person’s day is “running late.” She responds, politely informing the sender that she thinks they have the wrong e-mail address, but that she would otherwise love to walk their dog (if she thought they lived anywhere near her, but she’s confident that’s not the case as no one lives near her). The sender replies, informing her that Wilbur is not, in fact, a dog, but a pig and apologizing for the mistake. Ellie’s surprised to hear about the sender’s unconventional pet and says as much; they strike up a correspondence for the rest of the evening – and for several months after that. It turns out that her new pen pal is a boy, living in California, roughly around her age. They share intimate details about who they are and what they love, they develop inside jokes, they share their hopes and worries. What they don’t share are their identities. Their names remain secret. And for a good reason. Ellie’s correspondent is Graham Larkin: a lonely, wildly popular, superstar actor who’s just looking for someone to appreciate him for who he is and not how much money he has or which party he can get them into. He wants to have normal conversations with someone who’s not awestruck by his fame. And he gets that with Ellie. So when his movie’s looking for a shooting location with a small-town, coastal vibe, he’s quick to suggest Henley, Maine. He doesn’t tell Ellie who he is or that he’s coming. What happens after that is a seriously adorable love story.
What Made The Book Totally Worth Eating:
1. Graham Larkin’s pet pig.
As a shapeshifting fey living undercover as a domesticated rabbit, I have an appreciation for unconventional pets. There are options aside from cats and dogs – and we’re just as lovable! I had a college professor once who frequently talked about his pet pot-bellied pig. The pig’s name was Leonard. He (the pig, not the professor) loved eating Fruit Loops and watching Scooby-Doo on the couch. (I prefer watching Fringe on the couch, but to each his own). The professor taught Literature. That should come as no surprise. Book-lovers are an unusual bunch. I’m glad Graham Larkin was a bit unusual, too.
2. It’s a hot, hot summer.
Some people like winter. They like snow. They think it’s beautiful, soft, and quiet. They feel, after a storm, as if they’re living in Wonderland. You know what I think? I think it’s cold. So while I’m grateful to have missed a (paid) day of work after this last Nor’easter, I was also so happy to discover that This is What Happy Looks Like, while it still takes place in New England, has the wisdom to do so in June. If it took place in January, it’d have to be called something altogether different: This is What Gray Looks Like. This is What Misery Looks Like. This is What Snowbroth Looks Like. This is What Cabin Fever Looks Like. This is What Cracked & Dry Skin Looks Like. This is What it Looks Like When The World is Dead For At Least Five Months: Nothing Blooms, There’s No Color, The Trees Are Sad Skeletal Shadows of Their Past Selves, And You Basically Can’t Go Outside. Jennifer E. Smith made the right choice. Much better to talk about ice cream on hot days, flip-flops, hot dogs, evening strolls, swimming, and sticking your toes in the water. For the few hours that it took me to read her book, I escaped from my cold little apartment with the ineffectual plastic shrink-wrapped over the windows and into the book. I got out! – for the first time in three days. Even if it was just a work of fiction, I felt the sun on my fur. And it felt glorious. Did I mention that I hate winter?
3. I can identify with the online romance.
My boyfriend (of almost 5 years) & I met online. Before we ever met, we sent each other e-mails back & forth for months. Granted, each of us knew the other’s name and had access to a wealth of social media profiles (Myspace (am I showing my age?), Facebook, etc.), so we weren’t going on e-mails alone, but it was similar. I know the feeling that Ellie describes, of waiting for his messages to pop up in my inbox. And so does he. He once wrote to me, “I love getting your emails. It makes my day. Checking my email is like waking up on xmas day. I look under the tree and see a bunch of boring spam presents, but then there is that HUGE one in the back that probably has something like… a jetpack in it. So I see your emails and I go, this is gonna be awesome.” We sent each other letters by snail mail, too, complete with old-school mix-tapes with our favorite songs and written reasons for why we’d included each song. It was a courtship. I’m glad this book is popular. I’m glad a romance that began online is getting such positive feedback from the reading community, and not just weird stares (because we’ve had our share of those when people ask us how we met, and we’re forced to admit “online”). I think it’s becoming way more common and acceptable now, though, which is kind of nice.
I don’t read realistic YA fiction often. The last time I came close was with Kate Ellison’s Notes from Ghost Town, and the characters in that were very different from Ellie & Graham. In Ghost Town, the characters drank, and smoked, and fooled around; they called their friends “twat” and “dickhead,” and one girl talked about a guy fingering her in a completely unsexy way, “like he was looking for loose change in the couch.” There was none of that in This is What Happy Looks Like, and it was refreshing. I don’t know if that makes it less “real,” but it’s fiction. I’m okay with fabrication. Instead of getting drunk on Grey Goose down at the beach and taking off all their clothes, Ellie & Graham watch the sun rise and set together. They raid Ellie’s fridge for leftovers. They watch the fireworks and hang out on her porch swing. They eat whoopie pies. They hold hands, and cuddle, and kiss. When Ellie’s thirsty, she drinks pink lemonade sans vodka. She dreams of taking a summer poetry class at Harvard, and “has never stolen a pack of gum before, never sneaked a cigarette or cheated on a test” (322). Graham forgoes going clubbing and partying with the other young celebs to stay at home and play videogames with Wilbur, and sketch cityscapes from his imagination. They’re sweet.
What I Spit Back Out:
1. Wilbur’s stuck at home… like a 1950’s housewife.
When Graham travels to Maine to shoot on-location for a month, he leaves his pig at home! What kind of nonsense is that? He should have taken Wilbur with him! They should be hanging out in his trailer! Wilbur & Bagel (Ellie’s dog) should’ve had the chance to become bff’s! Poor piggie should get to see the world! If Graham’s going to be away from home and leave his pet there for months at a time, maybe he shouldn’t have a pet. I know he has an uber-deluxe pen built for him that costs ~$1,000, and that Graham clearly loves him, but pets require a time-commitment, too! They need company… not just money and a dream home.
2. The conflict.
I know books need to have a conflict so that they can have a resolution: a beginning, a middle, and an end. But the reason for “trouble in paradise” between Ellie & Graham feels a little false. Ellie’s family has a secret that they want to remain hidden, and as a result, they’re very private people. Dating someone who has paparazzi following him around is kind-of out of the question. They’d find out her name and dig into her past… and then all would be exposed. But honestly, I don’t know that much about famous people’s significant others, aside from their names and what they look like. Do you? I mean, the media would probably snoop around a little, try to talk to Ellie’s best friend and her mom. They might ask a lot of questions about who Ellie is and what she’s like… but I doubt they’d be digging and scrounging for details to the degree that their secret would be exposed. They’ve got a pretty good, solid, cover and have been living the same, standard life for over a decade. They’d have to go really far back and be excellent detectives – and the truth’s not all that juicy, anyway. It’s kind of a silly problem to introduce. But maybe I just don’t understand because I’m not famous (though I can’t imagine why. I’m sure you’d agree that I should be… right?).
If a romantic, sunny, happy, summertime book sounds good to you, This is What Happy Looks Like might be just the thing. And it’s not totally devoid of substance. Some extra depth is added regarding what it means to grow up, what true friendship is, the definition of “loneliness”, what it means to truly “know” another person, and what it’s like to grow up without a dad. There are also some shout-outs to more “Classic” Lit, like The Wizard of Oz and Moby Dick – as well as some references to a few respected poets: Auden, Yeats, Elizabeth Bishop. It’s the perfect blend: sappy & easy, while still managing to be smart & not too trite.
It was a pleasure.
Pooka Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Nibbles.
And here’s a picture of a pig enjoying some of Ellie’s favorite things…for good measure.