Reviewed by Ruth Latta
One Plus One
by Jojo Moyes
NY, Viking, 2014
In an article in The Telegraph (UK) on July 14, 2011, author Jojo Moyes wondered if the “Aga saga” – the novel of middle class problems – has had its day. Acknowledging that the novel as a literary form coincided with the rise of a middle class, she suggests that maybe “We don’t feel the need to see another drama played out over the scrubbed pine table.” Although she concluded that novels about middle class issues, rather than working class ones, will continue to be popular, she said she recently wondered whether, in a time of recession, she could “retain sympathy for a character who lived in an architect-designed home.”
Moyes, the author of eleven novels, has opted for a working class central character in One Plus One. Jess Thomas, in her late twenties, works as a house-cleaner and barmaid, and is just getting by. Nevertheless she is determinedly optimistic, and tries to raise her two children, ten year old Tanzie and sixteen year old Nicky, to have a positive outlook. Her husband, Marty, supposedly suffering from depression, has left the south coast of England where he and Jess were trying to make ends meet, and has returned to live with his mother in the north. Marty pays no child support, and when Jess phones him his mother often reports that he is sleeping. Nicky is not Jess’s son, but Marty’s child from an earlier liaison, and ended up at age eight with Jess because his mother couldn’t care for him. Nicky wears mascara and Goth-like attire, and is bullied by youths from the notorious Fisher family on the housing estate.
Jess is forced to take stock of her situation when an unexpected stroke of good fortune befalls the family. Tanzie, who is brilliant in mathematics, is offered a scholarship at an excellent private school, St. Anne’s. Although the scholarship covers 90% of the cost, Jess has to come up with the other 10%, which is beyond her. Her only asset is an ancient Rolls Royce in her garage, which belongs to Marty, and which she is reluctant to sell because he once had plans to rent it out for gala occasions.
As Jess and her cleaning partner scrub, Jess tries to think of ways to acquire the money. Among the houses that they clean are several architect-designed homes on the chalk cliff above the sea. One, belonging to a Mr. Nicholls, is rarely occupied so when Jess and her partner, Nathalie, enter, they are startled to find the owner shouting into the telephone. When they finish and ask for their pay, Mr. Nicholls tells them to ask the management company, and when they point out that it hasn’t paid them for three weeks, he peels off several banknotes, behaving, in Jess’s words, “like an utter dickhead.”
We readers have already met Ed Nicholls and know something of his problems, because Jojo Moyes presents her story from alternating points of view, including his. The other point-of-view characters are Jess, Nicky and Tanzie. To quote Moyes from a YouTube interview, Ed Nicholls is “a geek who has made good.” He is happiest creating new computer software but out of his depth in the world of business. Divorced from a money-grubbing actress, he had an affair with an old flame from university days. To help her out of a financial tough spot, and also to get rid of her, he confided that his company had something new coming out that would drive up their stock. He then wrote her a cheque so that she could buy shares while the price was low, without realizing that this constituted “insider trading.” When the novel opens he faces insider trading charges and is at his seafront property to avoid the press.
Jess runs into Ed Nicholls again when she is at her evening job, serving at a local pub. He has drunk to excess and demands more just before closing time. Jess confiscates his keys and calls a cabdriver friend to take him home, then finds him asleep on the bench outside the pub. She and the taxi-driver get him back to his sea-front house, and then the cabbie drives her home. On getting out, she finds Mr. Nicholls’ I.D. card and a “fat roll of banknotes” in the footwell, and keeps them.
She next meets Ed when he stops by the side of a highway where she, her children and their dog are stranded. Tanzie’s math teacher has told her about a math Olympiad in Aberdeen, Scotland, with monetary prizes that would solve the school fee problem. Jess decides to take the Rolls, but is stopped by police because the car lacks a current licence plate and insurance. It is impounded. When Ed hears her story, he offers to drive them all to Aberdeen, a deed not as unselfish as it appears. He needs an excuse to avoid his dying father’s birthday party, because he doesn’t want to tell his parents and sister about the trouble he is in.
Much of the novel is an amusing road trip in which the perspectives of the well-to-do versus the needy are highlighted. The journey also allows Ed and Jess to get to know each other and to face up to their separate problems. In Jess’s case, it’s Marty, her husband, who has been lying to her about his depression and in fact is living with a well-to-do woman and her children. Ed must break the news to his parents that he may be facing a prison sentence. Initially, the reader thinks Ed and Jess ultimately get together and be the “one plus one” of the title, but the obstacles that arise cast serious doubt on that outcome for much of the novel.
Nicky sums up the central theme of the novel in his blog:
I don’t understand how our family can basically do the right thing and yet always end up in the crap….Mostly I don’t understand how the bullies and the thieves and the people who just destroy everything – the arseholes – get away with it. The boys who punch you in your kidneys for your dinner money, and the police who think it’s funny to treat you like you’re an idiot, and the kids who take the piss out of anyone who isn’t just like them. Or the dads who walk right out and just start afresh somewhere new that smells of Febreze, with a woman who drives her own Toyota and owns a couch with no marks on it and laughs at all his stupid jokes like he’s God’s gift and not actually a slimeball who lied to all the people who loved him for two years…Mum always told us that good things happen to good people. Guess what? She doesn’t say that any more.
Ed is the not the handsome prince who saves Cinderella from a life of drudgery, but throughout the novel, even when romance seems unlikely, he quietly helps Jess’s family. He gives Nicky his old computer, and installs a camera outside Jess’s home, which is instrumental in convincing the police that the family is being harassed. But because he has been financially exploited by two women, he is wary, and when he discovers that Jess took his roll of banknotes and I.D., it seems to be the end of their affair.
Moyes’s novel reminded me of The Middle Ground, a 1980 work of fiction by Margaret Drabble, which centres upon a single mother and shows the disparity between the comfortable classes and the struggling ones. Moyes’s plot is also akin to that of Jane Eyre, in centring on an intelligent woman with a strong sense of fairness, who meets a rich man. Like Mr. Rochester, Ed must be humbled by misfortune before he can fully appreciate Jess – though there is no madwoman in the attic and no fire in One Plus One.
Although some reviewers have called One Plus One “chick lit”, I see it a contemporary proletarian novel, excellent for its plausible plot, finely-drawn characters and accessible style. Another online magazine which publishes my book reviews has a rating system based on stars, with four as the maximum. I would give One Plus One four stars.
Ruth Latta has written several “proletarian” novels including The Songcatcher and Me, An Amethyst Remembrance, and Spelling Bee, which are listed on http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com