Reading Jojo Moyes One Plus One is not exactly like reading a rom com, though there are things it has in common with that genre, including a couple who (kind of) meet cute, a relationship that develops between them despite the obstacles that block them from each other, and a series of misadventures. There is even, though I really doubted this was going to happen in One Plus One, a happy ending. I take happy endings for granted in rom coms, no matter how dreadful things may seem in the course of the story, which is one reason I read them avidly. One Plus One does not give you that assurance (though I just did as a spoiler, because this is the kind of book where you need that kind of spoiler), and it’s possible that if this weren’t one of the selections for my senior citizens’ book group, I wouldn’t have read it, and I would have missed out.
Jess, our main character, starts out under a major cloud, mostly financial. She’s raising two children by herself (only her daughter, Tanzie, is actually her biological child; her other child, Nicky, is the child of her ex-husband by another woman). Her ex hasn’t lifted a finger to help support the children, claiming to be too depressed to get a job or get himself together, and Jess is kindhearted enough not to push him. She also has a dog, Norman, whose main skill seems to be flatulence. Jess works two jobs, as a housecleaner and as a barmaid, and barely scrapes by. Nicky is constantly getting beat up by the local family of thugs. Tanzie, younger than Nicky, is brilliant in math but isn’t really able to do anything about her intelligence in the school she goes to. When her teacher proposes that Tanzie start in a private school for math geniuses, with a potential scholarship, Jess obviously wants that for Tanzie but knows in her bones that she can’t afford it by any stretch. However, there’s a math olympiad in Scotland which Tanzie could qualify for, and if she can win that competition, she could have enough money to cover her school fees for a year or two, and Jess is sure they’d be able to work something out by the time the moneys would wear out. There’s one problem, though: they have no way of getting to the competition.
Enter our second main character, Ed, a tech millionaire who’s lousy at human relationships (is that a cliche or what?), who is in major trouble for insider trading. If you could imagine the most innocent way a person could accidentally give away insider information, you’d probably be close to imagining what Ed did. Blocked from his workplace, in imminent danger of being arrested, tried and sent to jail, Ed is in a bad place when he gets drunk at the bar where Jess works. As she gets him in a taxi and sends him home, she discovers that he dropped his wallet in the cab, with enough money to get Tanzie’s time-limited application for the private school.
Though Jess is a goody-goody’s goody-goody, she can’t resist that temptation, and she takes the money and uses it, without telling Ed, of course. So when her effort to drive herself and the kids to the competition ends in abject failure (and police involvement, which doesn’t bother Jess as much as the fines and associated costs she’s going to be stuck with when she’s already in over her head), and Ed drives by and, for no reason he can articulate to himself, volunteers to drive them to the competition, the whole time they’re together, Jess is aware that she’s done something wrong, that she’s unworthy of Ed’s reluctantly given help.
This is a road trip book to a large extent, and there are various adventures and misadventures along the way, and yes, as you would expect, the characters begin to bond in the confines of Ed’s car, which he’s forced to drive at no more than 40 miles per hour because of Tanzie’s serious motion sickness (which, of course, extends the time the group is stuck together). Think of an English version of Little Miss Sunshine, with a budding romance happening between the two main characters, and you have some idea of how the book goes.
My biggest problem with One Plus One, which may be more of a reflection on me and where I am at this point in my life than on the book itself, is the sheer amount of bad luck and misery the author throws at the characters. It’s not enough that Ed’s in danger of going to jail for his insider training; he also has a father who’s dying of cancer whom he’s been avoiding out of shame. It’s not enough that Jess has a useless ex husband and no end of money troubles; she has a stepson who’s being badly beaten by neighborhood thugs the local police won’t touch, and she loses one of her jobs and discovers that her ex is even worse than she suspected, and things go wrong (and badly wrong) for Tanzie as well.
As you’re reading along, every time you think things might take a turn for the better, they go in the opposite direction. Ed shows Nicky how to fight back against the local thugs, and they retaliate in a terrible way. Tanzie makes it to the competition, only her glasses which she needs to read are smashed right before she gets there, so she can barely see the papers for part of the timed competition. Jess is relentlessly upbeat and optimistic but the author has to beat her down to the point where she’s practically collapsed in depression (and what rouses her out of her bed isn’t something that’s fun or happy, either). That kind of thing happens again and again
The characters are real and flawed and you care about them. Ed becomes less of a cliche as you get to know him, and Nicky, for all his sullen exterior, has a great heart. Tanzie is a math genius, but she’s also crazy about her dog and caring about her mother and their situation. Jess is clear sighted and warmhearted and struggles mightily to make things work. You want good things to happen to them, and every time the author tightens the screws, it’s harder to keep reading. How much misery is too much?
There are some great redeeming moments, which I will not spoil here, unless telling you that something good happens counts as spoiling (and if it does, too bad), and there is the aforementioned happy ending. Because it comes after so much unhappiness and so much struggle, it definitely feels earned and realistic. These characters absolutely deserve the good stuff they get by the end of the book, and, while the ride there was a bit darker and more miserable than I would have liked (I would have been much nicer to these characters as an author), I’m glad I read it.
Whether you’ll like it or not sort of depends on how much you’re willing to go through to get to the happy ending. If you’re of the “one tragedy per book” school (no judgments there – whatever works for you), you’ll want to give this one a miss. But if you’re made of sterner stuff and you’re willing to see characters suffer a lot before good things happen to them, give this book a try, and you’ll enjoy it.