Poppy, $10.00, ISBN 978-0-316-21281-6
Contemporary Romance, 2013
I did not read any review of this book before buying it – I bought it because I love the cover and the title – and I didn’t realize what the hero’s “life in the spotlight” in the back cover synopsis meant until I actually read this book. I thought that was a reference to some controversy, like maybe the hero made a YouTube video demonstrating that he can pass gas in perfect sync to Katy Perry’s Birthday or something. Honey, if I knew that this is a young adult love story between a 17-year old teen star and a 16-year old smalltown girl, I’d have snickered and dismissed this book faster than I would to a copy of Austin Mahone’s newest album.
And then I start to read, and by the last page, I can only wince sheepishly and confess that, yeah, I can deal with this just fine.
Ellie O’Neill has a secret. She is the illegitimate daughter of a prominent Republican politician – who is currently on the high road to the White House – and a waitress. Her father is married, but not to her mother, so yes, it’s that sort of thing that is never as romantic as Olivia Pope would like everyone to believe. Her mother moves them every time someone discovers their true identity, but things had been quiet of late and Ellie has settled down nicely in the small town of Henley, Maine.
And then, one day, she receives an email, sent by accident, from “GDL824@yahoo.com”. “EONeill22@hotmail.com” and “GDL824@yahoo.com” exchange emails over the next few months until they hear Katy Perry wail Unconditionally in their heads while they take a deep pained breath and wish that they can remain forever like that, two people exchanging emails in their own world and sharing their hearts and souls.
And then, the circus comes to town. More specifically, hot teen heartthrob Graham Larkin comes in to film his latest movie. He actually pulled some strings to come here, because – you guessed it – “EONeill22@hotmail.com” is from Henley and he wants to meet the girl who has captured his heart. Can Ellie deal with the fact that her boyfriend is a movie star? How does their love story compare to the piles of fanfiction out there detailing the authors’ romantic fantasies with their favorite actors?
Now, young adult stories are double-edged swords where I am concerned. The bad ones are often horrific, and at my age, the last thing I want to read is a contemporary story where a teenage girl becomes the bride of some guy she knows for only a short time. I’m cynical – it won’t last, and I can only hope they don’t procreate and make some poor kid miserable some time down the road. The good ones often end on an ambiguous note after making me care so much for the main characters, and I end up craving for some clear-cut happy ending instead. I know, I am being contradictory here, but that’s why I’m such a delightfully complex creature with nuances and finer feelings.
Anyway, this one manages to sneak around my cynicism and get under my skin before I realize what has happened. Yes, Ellie is a sensitive soul with dreams that are bigger than her circumstances or her ability to get out of her town, which is sad were not for the fact that a boy dripping with money is in love with her. Graham doesn’t do drugs or anything nasty – he’s a sensitive soul too, quoting Charlotte’s Web and spending a night beside his sweetheart on a beach, just talking and looking at the stars and sharing their dreams without even trying to sneak his paw up her skirt. These kids aren’t teenagers. They are fantasy ideals beloved of prepubescent girls who crave wholesome innocent love without icky cooties and nasty fluids getting in the way. I desperately hope that Graham’s craving for “whoopie pie” is an euphemism for some lewd sex act that he’d like Ellie to do to him after he has snorted a few lines on her naughty parts – anything to defray the cloying wholesomeness of this story – but no, I don’t have any luck even in that area.
Yes, these two aren’t going to last if you ask me. He’d end up in rehab soon, she’d go to Harvard and end up in an affair with a very married professor, but who knows, maybe they’d meet again at an AA meeting ten years later and hook up in time for a reality TV show chronicling their marriage.
But the author does everything right here, to cater to the fantasy of being wooed by a teen heartthrob hunk who realizes that you, and only you, can fill the empty spaces in his soul with your sensitivity, tenderness, and hidden awesomeness that have gone unappreciated by the people around you. You are a generous teenage girl, forgiving of those who slighted and wronged you, because you are the heroine, magnanimous and caring when those people eventually realize your awesomeness. We can all laugh at this now that we are all old and jaded, but it’s a potent fantasy for teenage girls, and it’s one that still resonates with that teenage girl I once was, who did have such dreams once and find some pleasure in reliving them again. I once wanted a soul mate like Graham, and I can’t help smiling as I read this story and remember those days.
The author however smartly ends the story on a high but uncertain if realistic note. No, Ellie doesn’t become a child bride, thank goodness. Instead, the author ends it on a perfect note – I do want more, but I’m glad the author doesn’t sabotage her story to that extent.
The story resonates with me mostly because of the gorgeous writing. The narrative is simple, down to earth, and yet, the author can come up with some beautiful tender moments here. Ellie and Graham bare their hearts to one another before they meet face-to-face, and their email exchanges are quaint, funny, and sweet. Heartwarming too, because I can see that they are falling for one another before they come to the same conclusion.
Ellie is a nice heroine in that, unlike most heroines in young adult romances, she’s not self absorbed to a ridiculous extent while being praised as generous and selfless. She’s almost a Mary Sue heroine, but I’m fine with this because Ellie’s thoughts and insecurities all feel real to me. I’ve been in her shoes before, and I can deeply relate to her.
Graham is a dream. He’s sensitive, kind, gallant, thoughtful, and devoted. He oozes as much sex appeal as a rhubarb. But the fantasy the story is selling isn’t one drenched in hormonal urges, it’s all about finding a hot boy who understands you so perfectly even as he depends on you to make him whole and happy, so much so that you can breathe easy no matter what the world throws at you, because you have him as your support, strength, and shield. In many ways, that kind of guy is ten times more potent and sexy than some rake who can give a woman multiple orgasms in a space of ten seconds.
This Is What Happy Looks Like takes me back to those days when I was a lonely teenage girl, studying in my dorm room and looking out the window while wondering whether I’d find that dream guy who would sweep me away from the tedium, uncertainties, and concerns that were so terrifying back then to a young girl. Of course, now I know such guys don’t exist, and if they do, I’d most likely resent them eventually due to them being so perfect and I’m not. But this is life. Books like this one allow me to slip back into the shoes of that young girl I once was, and it is a bittersweet kind of experience to relive who I once was. I am wiser now, perhaps, or perhaps not, but I do kind of miss those days when I was idealistic enough to sigh and even shed a tear when corny love songs play over the radio late at night.