Safety advisory: If you’re planning to read Jojo Moyes’s “One Plus One” on your summer vacation, slather on plenty of SPF 50. Once you start the book, you probably won’t look up again until you’re the last one left on the beach.
In her wonderful new novel, Moyes gathers a cast of misfits you can’t help but root for: Jess Thomas, a relentless optimist who cleans houses in a never-ending scramble to pay the bills; her video-game-addicted teenage stepson, Nicky, whose love of eye makeup makes him a bully magnet; precocious daughter Tanzie, who challenges a new acquaintance to convert her name to binary code; and Ed Nicholls, a client of Jess’s with a passion for Starbucks coffee.
When Tanzie is offered a chance to compete in a Math Olympiad and potentially win tuition at a school for the gifted, Jess, Nicky and Tanzie, along with their large, gassy dog, pile into a car that Jess’s ex-husband left behind; they plan to drive from a small town south of London to the competition in Scotland. There’s just one problem: Jess can’t legally drive. Two problems, actually: She doesn’t have car insurance.
Luckily, Ed does. He also has an immaculate Audi — and his own reasons for wanting to escape. In the opening pages of the book, Ed, a tech company founder, has just learned that he’s under suspicion for insider trading.
As the ragtag group hits the road, it endures a host of unpleasantries: sketchy hotel rooms, a deeply regrettable fast-food kebab and the dog’s intestinal challenges. Then there’s Tanzie’s travel quirk.
“Tanzie gets sick if we go fast,” Jess informs Ed as they start out.
“She’ll be fine. This car is brand new. It has award-winning suspension. Nobody gets sick in it,” Ed replies.
Jess looks straight ahead. “You don’t have kids, do you?”
Wacky road trips aren’t a unique premise in fiction (or film) — from “Thelma & Louise” to “Little Miss Sunshine” — but that’s one of the few unoriginal things about Moyes’s novel. The book is filled with unexpected emotional and geographical turns and witty exchanges. As she explores the challenges faced by each of her characters — who take turns as narrators — Moyes is both light-hearted and thoughtful.
Nicky’s story is perhaps the most heart-wrenching. “Everyone knew the score,” Jess thinks of her son’s experience. “You looked like a freak, you got battered. . . . That was the crushing, immovable logic of a small town.”
Even when he’s miles away, Nicky can’t escape the bullies’ wrath, thanks to the Internet. Nicky rarely speaks, but he releases his anguish in a blog, writing, “Mostly, I don’t understand how the bullies . . . 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.”
But the beauty of a makeshift family is that sometimes, even when its members can’t help themselves, they can find a way to save one another: Ed uses his technological expertise to teach Nicky to fight back, and Jess persuades Ed to stop avoiding his dying father and confess his troubles.
Moyes’s last novel, “Me Before You,” was an international hit. Math prodigy Tanzie would probably agree that this follow-up is just as good — maybe even fractionally ahead — in its charms.
Pekkanen is the author of “Skipping a Beat” and “The Opposite of Me.”
ONE PLUS ONE
By Jojo Moyes
Pamela Dorman/Viking. 368 pp. $27.95