Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell
Commercial women’s fiction, you know – what we used to call ‘Chick-lit’, some still do, is alive and well, and the top titles are still selling shedloads of books to women who enjoy a novel with a troubled romance and a happy ending. It’s a trope that never ages – boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. It used to be simple, but these days it’s got complicated, in particular due to extended families.
Jojo Moyes is currently one of our most successful writers of such fiction. She’s now written eleven novels at roughly one every year or so since 2002 when she became a full time novelist. She’s won the Romantic Novelist’s Award twice, and her 2012 novel Me Before You was a huge success thanks to the Richard & Judy Book Club.
I don’t often read this kind of fiction, but occasionally I’ll turn to it for a relaxing read. I needed that this week, but I didn’t expect Moyes’ latest novel The One Plus One to keep me up until two in the morning! It was anything but relaxing. I devoured it, getting completely involved in the lives of Jess, her family and Ed – the stranger who helps Jess in her hour of need.
Jess Thomas is a single mum with two jobs and two children – one of whom isn’t even her own. They scrape by – just – she works every hour she can as a cleaner and barmaid in the south coast town where they live. Tanzie, her daughter, is a mathematical genius, but if she just goes to the local comprehensive next year, she’ll be labelled a geek and suffer, just as her teenaged brother Nicky does. Nicky is the child of Jess’s ex’s first marriage, but he stayed with Jess after Marty went. A sensitive lad, he’s bullied and beaten up all the time by the nasty Fisher boys who also live on their estate. Then there’s Norman the huge, drooling, lovely old dog who adores the children. Jess is like the Sally Hawkins character in the Mike Leigh film Happy-go-lucky – a cheerful optimist – well things could hardly get worse, could they?
It starts off with good news, of a sort… Tanzie is offered a 90% bursary funded place at a top school, but that still leaves £2000 to be paid with uniform and extras, how can Jess find that sort of money?
Meanwhile, Ed is in exile from his London company at his beachfront flat. He’s under investigation for insider trading – he told his so-called ‘girlfriend’ about the upcoming flotation, and she took advantage. He was so naïve.
Then Jess finds out about the Maths Olympiad coming up, Tanzie could win £5000. But it’s in Aberdeen and they can’t afford the fare. Jess does the only thing she can – she piles the whole family into Marty’s old car; no tax or insurance and it smells, but it’s all she has. They set off, and don’t get far before they are pulled over. This is when Ed drives past – he recognises his cleaner, and pulls up: ‘Hi,’ Ed said, lowering the window, ‘Can I help?’ Jess is embarrassed, but when Ed, who needs distracting to take his mind off his own situation, offers to drive them there in his posh Audi, she reluctantly agrees.
So begins the long road trip. Doubly long, because of car sickness and stops all the way there. It gives time for Jess and Ed to get to know each other. They will go through many trials and tribulations together on the journey. Ed has the threat of his trial and a prison sentence hanging over him, Jess is wondering how she can let Tanzie down gently about the school place. But as the miles go on, they will all bond and enjoy each other’s company. How will the trip end though? What happens next?
The predicament of this modern family, lurching from one bad day to another, always hoping for that silver lining, gripped me from the outset. We’re thrown straight into Jess’s life and what it’s like to be a cleaner and live on the breadline. There really are haves and have-nots in this life. Will Jess let herself fall for Ed and join the haves?
What was particularly enjoyable about this unconventional romance was that it wasn’t all about Jess and Ed. It was far more than just about them, this novel was about the kids too (and the dog), and especially troubled teenager Nicky – Moyes really seemed to understand him. The hard slog that goes into making modern families work for all involved underpins the whole story.
This novel was grittier than many others I’ve read, and Moyes certainly has a knack for both dialogue and getting inside her characters’ minds. It only takes a few pages to start caring about the them, and for all her faults – yes, she did have some – I had faith in Jess right from the start, just as she has faith in the weather by wearing flip-flops in spring to anticipate sunshine.
Annabel Gaskell is Fiction editor of Shiny New Books, and loves it when you can’t put a good book down.
Jojo Moyes, The One Plus One (Penguin: London 2014). 978-14059155711, 518pp., hardback.