Maybe it’s because I’ve never traveled abroad, but I find that I am always especially drawn to young adult books that take place overseas. Bonus points if it’s somewhere in Europe, and such is the case in Gayle Forman’s newest novel, Just One Day.
Allyson is spending the summer on an “educational” trip across Europe, but it’s not going as she had hoped. She doesn’t feel like she’s truly experiencing anything – even being there in person, she’s getting the cold, guidebook version of Europe. On a whim, Allyson breaks off from the group to attend a Guerilla Shakespeare performance of Twelfth Night on the final leg of her trip. There she meets Willem, an easygoing Dutch actor, and ends up spending the next day with him in Paris.
Allyson, who is normally a Type A overachiever, feels herself loosening up and acting differently in Willem’s company. After he gives her the nickname “Lulu,” she starts to see Lulu as an alternate identity; a new and improved Allyson who’s not afraid to take risks and live spontaneously. Upon her return to the States, Allyson’s one-day experience with Willem in Paris makes a profound impact on her outlook on life – and it’s not necessarily a good one. As she struggles through her first year of college, Allyson begins to learn what she really wants out of life, and is driven to try tracking down Willem despite knowing hardly anything about him.
Just One Day is structured into three distinct parts. The first, which follows Allyson’s day in Paris with Willem, was fast-paced and engaging. It reminded me a lot of one of my favorite movies, Before Sunrise. Not just because the premise is similar, but because Allyson and Willem have really interesting conversations; the kind of conversations that only people who don’t really know each other can feel comfortable having. These were some of my favorite moments in the book, because it gave insight into each character’s unique perspective on life and relationships. As an added bonus, these conversations usually take place in a wonderfully-described Parisian setting.
Part two focuses on Allyson’s first year of college and the challenges she faces there. This was my least favorite section of the book because it really put the brakes on the pacing. I felt like the story meandered a little too long without having a clear trajectory. Certainly everything that happens in this section has some importance as far as Allyson’s personal evolution, so it’s not like it wasn’t a valid part of the book overall…it just seemed to move so slowly compared to the rest of the book, and I didn’t know where it was going so I sometimes felt like I was reading out of obligation rather than interest in what happened next.
Thankfully things pick up in the third part of the book, when Allyson begins her search for Willem. The story ends on a high note, and even with a bit of a cliffhanger (the sequel to this book, Just One Year, will be released in October and is written from Willem’s perspective). And really, it’s because of Part 2 that I was able to enjoy Part 3 as much as I did. Allyson is much stronger, more decisive, and more determined than anywhere else in the book. Seeing her come out of her shell and start taking action was incredibly gratifying.
There are several side characters in this story – Allyson’s childhood best friend, her college roommates, her parents – and even though some of them don’t show up often and have limited interaction with Allyson, I still felt like I knew and understood these characters. This is something Forman excels at, as I remember making a similar comment about the supporting characters in If I Stay.
I was also really happy with Forman’s portrayal of Paris. I may be drawn to books that take place in Europe, but not all of them succeed in bringing it to life. What’s great about this book is that even though Allyson and Willem don’t really visit tourist destinations or follow the expected Paris sight-seeing route, I still felt like every scene was infused with a distinctly Parisian vibe. Sometimes it was an ambient setting, sometimes it was an interaction with a local, and, let’s be honest, sometimes it was detailed food descriptions.
In stories like this, the reader’s investment in the relationship is incredibly important. Maybe Allyson wasn’t my favorite lead character ever, and Willem certainly wasn’t my favorite romantic interest, but there is something to be said for how they work together. Perhaps because I felt a little distanced from Willem I wasn’t 100% sold on the relationship, but I believed it enough that I did care about Allyson’s quest to find Willem and, more importantly, could understand why he was so important to her.
I also care enough that I will definitely be looking forward to the sequel. The sequel, by the way, is totally necessary as far as I’m concerned. Just One Day can stand on its own, but it probably shouldn’t unless you’re fond of open endings. Some people are; I’m not one of them. I’m looking forward to getting Willem’s perspective in Just One Year and seeing how the story pans out.