If you are the sort of reader who talks derisively of “chick lit” in that superior tone — you know which one I mean — then you may not be swayed by the charms of Jojo Moyes’ latest novel. But the delightful, comic One Plus One is as likable a book as you will come across this summer, light and funny, with surprisingly subtle commentary on how the income gap separates people emotionally as well as financially.
Also the author of the novels Me Before You and The Girl You Left Behind, Moyes has a breezy, dialogue-driven style that drops you easily into the minds of her mismatched protagonists, who live on opposite ends of Great Britain’s economic spectrum. Tech whiz Ed is a millionaire in danger of losing his business, his money and his freedom, due to accusations of insider trading. Ed is essentially a good guy, but his decision-making lately has been faulty. Nor is he a slick conspirator: Asked if he had mentioned his company’s top secret project launch to a woman he was sleeping with, his confused response is “No. Maybe. What is this?”
Jess, on the other hand, is used to financial crises because she’s always in the middle of one. The single mom of bullied Goth stepson Nicky and math genius daughter Tanzie — their father has left them, claiming a nervous breakdown — Jess works two jobs. She’s a house cleaner by day, which she mostly likes (“What she didn’t like was that you ended up finding out much more about other people’s lives than you really wanted to”) and works at the local pub by night (“The Feathers was not smart. ... it did not serve fresh seafood or fine wines or family-friendly menus catering to screaming children. It served various kinds of dead animal with chips.”)
Normally their paths wouldn’t cross, but Jess cleans Ed’s house, and Ed frequents Jess’ bar and ends up drunk there. Then one night, Ed spots Jess, the kids and their large, smelly, drooling dog Norman next to a broken-down car by the side of the road. They are — or were — on the way to a math competition in Scotland. Tanzie has been offered an almost-but-not-quite full scholarship to a prestigious school, and Jess hopes she can win the contest money to pay the rest of the tuition. Regretting the offer as soon as he makes it, Ed offers to drive them there.
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Moyes stretches out the trip for dramatic effect; Ed can’t go over 40 miles an hour or Tanzie gets carsick. During the time on the road, the expected happens. Any fan knows a romantic comedy is only as good as its roadblocks, and Moyes sets up a few solid ones: Desperate Jess has secretly kept a roll of Ed’s money, which she found in the taxi the night he left the bar drunk. Ed is unaware of this. Meanwhile, he’s wary of getting involved with anyone when he could be facing prison.
Nicky and Tanzie also get chapters dedicated to their points of view, which round out the story nicely.
A few of the book’s conceits don’t quite make sense: Why doesn’t Jess file police reports when Nicky is beat up? Why doesn’t she sue her ex for child support when she’s broke? But Moyes makes up for these missteps with sharply drawn characters, genuinely amusing scenarios and a compelling warmth for all of these endearing misfits (even Norman). One Plus One may be all formula, but it’s a tried and true equation that reminds us that all sorts of people can add up to a happy family.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.