I've come to regard books by Jojo Moyes as little treasures, to be indulged in when I need a special treat. When I get a new one I hang on to it for a while before reading it, enjoying the anticipation. (The same is true for J. K. Rowling's mysteries that she writes under the pen name Robert Galbraith; I'm reading The Silkworm now.) My only problem is that neither writer is cranking books out fast enough to satisfy me. Maybe I could stick them both into a parallel universe where there are more hours in a day, enabling them to produce more books, faster. I'll have to get right on that.
In One Plus One, Jess is a single mother who is just barely getting by, working as a cleaner and barmaid in a resort community in southern England. She lives in a crappy apartment in public housing, her kids are being bullied at school, and her ex-husband hasn't sent her a penny in years. In the face of these problems, Jess remains unrelentingly cheerful, buoying everyone along through creative budgeting, hard work and unflagging optimism.
On the other side of town, where the rich folks have their beach houses, we find software entrepreneur Ed Nicholls, who is hiding out from, well, from everyone. Under investigation for insider trading, Ed is dodging phone calls from his ex-wife, his ex-business partner, his lawyer and his sister, and sinking further and further into self pity.
Jess cleans Ed's house, and she waits on him at the bar. She finds him arrogant and rude; he barely registers her existence. But through a series of events too complicated to get into here, Ed ends up driving Jess and her kids to Scotland so that Jess' daughter Tanzie can compete in a math competition. It's Jess' last desperate attempt to get Tanzie, a math whiz, out of the local school and into a safer place where her skills can be nurtured. It's this road trip (complete with a huge flatulent dog) that takes up the lion's share of the book, and where, of course, Jess and Ed fall in love.
Nothing in this book is as simple as it sounds here, though. Moyes can sketch out a character in a few telling lines, and provide unexpected richness and depth to simple situations. She's really a great writer, and this book works on a lot of levels: as a love story, a modern family drama and an investigation of entrenched class differences in modern Britain.
The trickiest thing she does is to make Ed sympathetic. He transitions from a clueless self-absorbed whiner into a man who takes responsibility for his poor decisions and moves forward with insight and compassion. My favorite part of the book is where Ed dismisses £50 as "nothing" and Tanzie schools him on all the things that her family can buy with that amount of nothing (the school lunches, bus fare and other expenses that Jess sweats every day).
A lazier novelist would have been content to make Ed the knight in shining armor who rescues Jess from poverty. In this book the person who really gets rescued is Ed.