01 July 2014
One Plus One
American audiences have fallen in love with Jojo Moyes. Ever since she debuted stateside, she has captivated readers and reviewers alike, and hit the New York Times bestseller list with the word-of-mouth sensation, Me Before You. Now, with One Plus One, she’s written another contemporary opposites-attract love story that reads like a modern-day Two for the Road.
Suppose your life sucks. A lot. Your husband has done a vanishing act, your teenage stepson is being bullied and your math whiz daughter has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you can’t afford to pay for. That’s Jess’s life in a nutshell—until an unexpected knight-in-shining-armor offers to rescue them. Only Jess’s knight turns out to be Geeky Ed, the obnoxious tech millionaire whose vacation home she happens to clean. But Ed has big problems of his own, and driving the dysfunctional family to the Math Olympiad feels like his first unselfish act in ages . . . maybe ever.
One Plus One is Jojo Moyes at her astounding best. You’ll laugh, you’ll weep, and when you flip the last page, you’ll want to start all over again.
Confession time: I have yet to finish Jojo Moyes's Me Before You. I'm about halfway through and I'm absolutely terrified of the ending because I'm not sure if I will "like" the ending as a critical reader or whether it will feel trite and manipulative and then I'll be ragingly annoyed. There is a level of social realism in Moyes's writing that conveys an "anything might happen" situation. So there was a bit of trepidation when I put in my name for a Penguin First to Read DRC of One Plus One and got lucky in the drawing. Would I like it? And, more importantly, could I finish it?
The above blurb doesn't quite do One Plus One justice because it gives a sense of zaniness or a madcap adventure. And while there are moments of levity and goofy circumstances, this is not a funny rom-com where people dash all over England and Scotland in attempt to get a special child to a contest that she is guaranteed to win and a Happy Ending For All.
Jess is a single mother living on a council estate where she works two low-paying jobs (bartending and cleaning houses) to try and juggle the bills so that she and the kids can eat, pay rent and utilities, and have a bit leftover to take care of the dog and maybe have a small treat now and then. She is ever the optimist, believing that being a good person and constantly working hard will bring rewards (she even avoids nagging her husband who, two years ago, went to live with his mother in what sounds like a bout of severe depression). Her current desire is to get the hell out of that council estate because Nicky (her stepson) is being terrorized by a local crowd of bullies who have so terrified the neighborhood that witnesses to the abuse evaporate, even when an attack lands Nicky in the hospital. If Nicky is beaten for being different (a little alternative, maybe a little glam, a good kid) what will happen to eight-year-old mathematics prodigy Tanzie when she gets to the same school?
Ed, though he works hard, grew up in a solidly middle-class family, went to a good school, and recently sold the software he created with his best friend to make a mint. He had it all - until he made a spectacularly bad decision in giving an annoying booty call some "financial advice" (caveat: it's the Queen Bee from college that nerdy Ed couldn't ever hope to be with and he got played). Now he's being investigated for insider trading, ostracized from work, and isolated at his beach house.
Jess is his house cleaner. Later, he vaguely recognizes her at the pub when she calls him on being a jerk. Through a series of plot machinations - chiefly, Tanzie's ability in maths, her acceptance at an elite school, Jess's desperation to cover the remaining ~2,000£ with a series of poorly thought out bad decisions, and a Maths Olympiad prize that could cover the amount and then some - Ed offers to drive Jess, Nicky, Tanzie, and Norman (the family's very large, drooly, smelly dog) to Scotland for the maths competition.
And this is where Moyes's social realism brings the issues of income and social class to a head. Ed literally cannot wrap his head around why Jess makes sandwiches, avoids incurring expenses, and insists on paying him back. When she says that he is rich, he demurs. He describes the banking software he sold as costing the average person less than a penny per transaction (it sounds vaguely like a universal PayPal something or other); when Jess asks Tanzie to do the addition it comes out to over 100£ per year. Ed protests that this is a rather paltry sum but Tanzie reels off exactly, almost to the penny, how much food and clothing the family could buy and how much Jess could stretch that amount for a family of three.
This conversation is one of the significant points in the book. It illustrates how much the system makes a family like Jess's work for every little good thing. That even in the face of the family's financial hardship the school that could save Tanzie thinks that a 90% scholarship is enough and that surely Jess could just fork over 2,000£. The hidden shame that Jess makes all of Tanzie's clothes rather than buy them. That the police can hardly be bothered when Nicky is hospitalized. That Ed doesn't realize 100£ dribbled out over the course of a year could take a family from poor to destitute. Tanzie's list of much needed items, a very pedestrian list to someone like me who, although I have bills and debts, doesn't have to worry about choosing between paying for the next meal or paying the rent, reads like a calorie count of food items recited by an anorectic. Each strange set-back on the trip - motion sickness, food poisoning, Tanzie's broken glasses - seems like another brick in a wall meant to keep the lower classes low. Even the maths competition is not the rewarding experience that is promised.
Alongside the issues of money and class, Moyes's also pulls bullying, cyberbullying, the ostracism of females who excel at STEM fields (I don't have a tidy word for that - it's feminism but that doesn't seem to fit right), slut shaming, and deadbeat dads into the mix. Jess and Ed each make really stupid decisions, then regret them. Nicky thinks that ignoring his problem will make it go away. Even Tanzie makes a decision that could have disastrous consequences. I was moved to tears at one point when Nicky discovers that the kindness of strangers is a real, true thing. This is a novel about people who live real, messy lives and don't have the luxury of waiting for things to happen. They grab onto their opportunities with both hands and if the ending isn't Happily Ever After it is certainly Happier and More Secure Than We Were.
Jojo Moyes's One Plus One is out today from Pamela Dorman Books.
Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book via Penguin's First to Read program.