ONE PLUS ONE, by Jojo Moyes. Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, 368 pp., $27.95.
"I have read books that are so cliched and lazy, my eyes have bled. But I also have read books marketed under the chick-lit umbrella that are so honest, clever and gritty that I've wanted to give up writing and paint walls instead."
That's Jojo Moyes, in an opinion piece a few years back in The Telegraph, an English newspaper. Since her sixth novel, "Me Before You," hit U.S. bestseller lists last year, the British author has come to be as well loved here as she is at home.
Moyes' seventh novel, "One Plus One," focuses on the plight of a beleaguered optimist named Jess. Since her husband, Marty, moved out two years ago, she has been nearly crushed by financial difficulties, working both as a housecleaner and a bartender to support two kids. One of them, her teenage stepson, Nicky, is the result of a long-ago fling of Marty's, but nobody wants the kid except Jess. With his eyeliner and dyed hair, Nicky is a bully magnet.
The other child is a 9-year-old math prodigy, Tanzie. Sweet Tanzie has been offered a scholarship to an excellent private school, but even the fraction Jess would have to pay is out of reach. Then she's told of a math competition in Scotland with a cash prize. They have to go -- even if it means taking the unregistered, uninsured, broken-down vehicle in the garage.
They don't get far.
Meanwhile, among Jess' clientele in both her professions is a super-successful, super-selfish tech exec named Ed who gave an insider stock tip to an ex-girlfriend. When the scandal hits, his world falls apart. But somewhere between corporate hell and prison, he runs across Jess and her kids broken down on the side of the highway.
Most of the story takes place on the road trip to the math contest, during which everybody in this unlikely foursome falls in love with everybody else. Of course, when they get home, beautifully engineered plot twists wreck everything.
Then there are a few more twists after that.
One hallmark of British popular fiction is its economic grit: Among everything else you can learn from J.K. Rowling's "The Casual Vacancy" or Caitlin Moran's "How to Build a Girl" is just what life is like on a council estate. Similarly, Moyes' story of Cinderella and the Prince doesn't romance the class issues. They shape both plot and characters in a realistic way, down to the last nasty tuna-paste sandwich and desperate bad decision.
No house painting for Moyes.
Jojo Moyes signs copies of "One Plus One" on Monday, July 7 at 7 p.m. at Book Revue, 313 New York Ave., Huntington; 631-271-1442, bookrevue.com