Deconstructing Happiness


Jennifer E. Smith’s stories may not exactly be the most groundbreaking in terms of plot in recent contemporary young adult literature but I still think she deserves to be congratulated for coming up with some of the most intriguing (albeit somewhat bordering on dramatic) book titles in the history of ever. So far I’ve already read three books from her: The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, The Geography of You and Me, and a fortnight ago I have read This is What Happy Looks Like and wow is there like a writing course on HOW TO CREATE A FANCY BOOK TITLE 101 because where do I sign up?

Happiness, in my opinion, is probably the most subjective thing in the world and is therefore one of the hardest things to define. Some might have grand, monumental delusions of their most secret fantasies coming to life while some would find it in the mundane little things of every day that 99.99% of the time goes unnoticed.  Ellie, the heroine of this book, defines happiness like this:

Sunrises over the harbor. Ice cream on a hot day. The sound of the waves down the street. The way my dog curls up next to me on the couch. Evening strolls. Great movies. Thunderstorms. A good cheeseburger. Fridays. Saturdays. Wednesdays, even. Sticking your toes in the water. Pajama pants. Flip-flops. Swimming. Poetry. The absence of smiley faces in an e-mail.

I know, right? The things that make her happy is so cheesy and naive it’s legit like a page off of your standard introverted high-school girl’s diary slash the script of a sappy teenage rom-com flick, but I forgive her for it. She’s entitled to her own picture of happiness just as I am entitled to mine and you are entitled to yours.  If anyone would ask me to write a list of things that make me happy, I can say with absolute certainty that this will no doubt rank high on the happiness hierarchy: reading a good book.

This is What Happy Looks Like isn’t really something I’d call mind-blowing, and in my opinion it didn’t even come close to achieving at least half the awesomeness of The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, but it was so damn enjoyable and it made me smile and go awwww a lot (which I hardly even do in real life) and I finished it in half a day and made me feel slightly optimistic about life in general, which is to say, yeah: it wasn’t flawless but oh, how fun!

From the get-go, we instantly zoom in inside the minds of a boy and a girl: Elle, the red-haired small-town girl from Maine, who one day unknowingly receives an incorrectly sent email on her inbox from Graham, a lonely teenage Hollywood superstar. I’m sure I’m not the only one who rolled my eyes at the terribly unoriginal premise of the celebrity-falls-in-love-with-a-non-celebrity trope, but seriously, how cute is it that they met through a mistakenly-sent email about taking care of a pet…pig? I swear to God I am not making this up.

Without a doubt, that’s my favorite thing about this book–the conversation relayed through email exchanges, which are all smart and hilarious and insightful and delightfully flirty I swear to god I am thisclose to seething in jealousy because I WANT SOMEONE OUT THERE IN THE WORLD WIDE WEB TO FLIRT LIKE THAT TO ME TOO LOL. (Excuse my momentary childish rage, sorry)

The book acknowledges how communication is such an essential part of falling in love, that in the absence of a face, even words are sufficient to be attracted to someone, even if they could possibly be an ocean away from you, or lives in a different universe altogether. Opposites attract, and all that jazz. We’ve heard it again and again, and yet.

“He hadn’t realized how much it could mean, having someone to talk to like that; he hadn’t realized that it could be a kind of lifeline, and that without it, there would be nobody to save you if you started to drown.”

Ellie and Graham (but mostly Graham) still seemed to me like a curious product of wishful thinking and imagination and I admit it’s truly hard to suspend disbelief when they tackle profound things about life and love, but I like them so much, and I guess when you like a character, it’s so embarrassingly easy to overlook their ‘unrealness’ or their ridiculously fashioned back-stories. We don’t believe them but admit it: We wish they are real.

Still, there were glimpses of truth in the book that make the characters come alive from their stereotypical trappings and then it becomes somehow inevitable to feel and sympphatize with their anxieties, their little triumphs, their secret feelings, their moments of revelation–you will root for them no matter what.

In one of her musings, Ellie thought:

Maybe they were nothing more than a footnote.

And Graham, on kissing Ellie:

It was exactly as he’d thought it would be, like the first time and the millionth time all at once, like being wide awake, like losing his balance. Only this time, it wasn’t just him; this time, they were losing their balance together.

Ah, teenage love. It makes you remember that the best things in the world are not meant to be defined, but felt. And I’m glad and grinning because this book did not tell me what happiness feels like–it taught me what happiness felt like, and that’s more than I can ask for.


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