Jess, the hapless protagonist of One Plus One, the latest novel by British author Jojo Moyes, can’t catch a break. Ten years ago, she got pregnant and dropped out of high school to marry Marty. Now, still in her twenties, Jess works constantly, cleaning houses and serving tables in a pub, to support two children. Marty has gone home to his mother and left Jess to raise his sixteen-year-old son, Nicky, along with their daughter, Tanzie, a math genius, on her own.
As the novel opens, Jess is desperate to transport Tanzie, Nicky, and their enormous black dog of indeterminate origin from their coastal home in England to Aberdeen, Scotland, so Tanzie can compete in a “math Olympiad” and perhaps win the cost of her school tuition. With the contest days away, and Nicky just released from the hospital after being beaten up by the bullies who regularly knock him around, Jess opts to drive them to Scotland in Marty’s antique Rolls Royce. Within minutes, the car bottoms out, stranding the whole family on the side of the road.
Enter Ed Nicholls, who zips past the melee in his Audi, recognizing Jess as the housecleaner of his vacation home. Fresh from a messy romantic affair that inadvertently led to his being charged with insider trading, Ed’s dealing with his own crisis. Nevertheless, something pulls at his heartstring, and he pulls over to help, though “he wouldn’t be entirely sure what had made him stop,” Moyes writes. “Perhaps it was an attempt to delay his arrival back in that empty house. Perhaps in a life that had gone so far off the rails, making such a scene no longer seemed like an odd thing to do.” It’s also possible that he needs to convince himself, “against all available evidence,” that he’s not a complete jerk.
Only after Ed offers the whole crew a ride does he learn that the math contest they’re headed to is in Scotland. Then he learns that the normally eight-hour drive on the highway will take two or three days on back roads because Tanzie gets carsick when moving faster than forty kilometers per hour. Jess feels as uncomfortable about accepting Ed’s proposal as Ed feels about following through on it. Everything about Jess suggests a “boundarylessness ” that makes Ed nervous. But the tension eventually falls away, and Ed begins to consider their situation:
Jess had actual kids, kids who needed stability in their lives and not someone such as he: he liked children as a concept, in the same way that he liked the Indian subcontinent—that is, it was nice to know it existed, but he had no knowledge about it and had never felt any real desire to spend time there. And all this was without the added factor that he was obviously [bad] at relationships, had only just come out of the two most disastrous examples anyone could imagine, and the odds of his getting it right with someone else on the basis of a lengthy car journey that had begun because he couldn’t think of how to get out of it were low.
In spite of all this, plus bouts of stomach sickness, dodgy meals, and the mutual sharing of dark personal secrets, Ed and Jess are drawn to each other. Ed’s kindness to the children and his surrender to the family’s unfamiliar chaos make him all the more likeable. Instead of his being a prospective partner and father figure whose wealth is his most important attribute, Ed comes across as a man of great humor and heart, and Jess offers him a different world.
The ragtag group faces obstacles large and small, keeping the plot of One Plus One charging along all the way to its somewhat predictable conclusion. It’s a happy book replete with love and the kind of David-versus-Goliath battles that invariably serve to endear the little guys to readers. A prolific novelist best known for the 2012 bestseller Me Before You, Moyes has proven herself to be a master of charming escapism, and One Plus One is no exception.
Sarah Norris holds an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College and has reviewed books for The Daily Beast, Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, and Village Voice, among other publications. She lives in Nashville.