Book Review: Just One Year by Gayle Forman
In this romantic and introspective young adult novel, we take another look at the events portrayed in the author’s previous novel Just One Day — only this time, we get the other side of the story.
In order to talk about Just One Year, I won’t be able to avoid discussing events from Just One Day (which I reviewed here in January), so consider this your spoiler alert! Look away now! Or better yet — run right out and pick up a copy of Just One Day, read it cover to cover, and then check back here to continue reading this review.
Are you back yet? Ready to go? Okay…
In Just One Day, main character Allyson takes us through the first time in her life when she went off-script — a day when she throws caution to the wind and jumps on a train to Paris with a cute boy to finally experience a day of spontaneous adventure. The cute boy is Willem, a carefree, go-where-the-wind-blows actor (who seems to have girls waiting for him across all of Europe), and he and Allyson (whom he calls Lulu) enjoy one perfect day… until the next morning, when Allyson wakes up alone and abandoned, devastated, and has to find a way to put herself back together. We then spend the rest of Just One Day witnessing Allyson’s journey toward discovering herself, what she stands for, and who she wants to be.
Key to the plot is the fact that Allyson/Lulu and Willem, so caught up in their romantic adventure, never got around to exchanging email addresses, phone numbers, last names… or even real names. Willem only knows Allyson as Lulu. Problem, right?
Allyson’s quest toward self-discovery takes up the last 2/3 of Just One Day, and as part of her process, she finally takes control of her own life and sets out to find Willem. But by the end of the book, we only know Allyson’s story, what she’s been through, and where her journey has taken her.
In Just One Year, we hear about the same events and the same time period, but this time it’s Willem’s experiences that count. We start with Willem waking up in a hospital, realizing that he’s forgotten something or someone… and soon piecing together that he was supposed to be with Lulu, but circumstances prevented him from getting to her before she disappeared from his life.
We soon get a much different picture of Willem than we had from the previous book. In Just One Day, Willem seems like a perfect golden boy, easy-natured, free-spirited, a total chick magnet, a guy who lives by his own rules. That’s not the Willem we get to know in Just One Year. Here, we discover that Willem has been wandering from place to place for three years, ever since his father died unexpectedly. Estranged from his mother and feeling rootless, Willem runs from connection and commitment, keeping everything in his life loose and at arm’s length, and it’s not until he meets Lulu that he starts to reexamine what he wants and how he wants to live his own life.
Willem’s journey takes him from Paris to Amsterdam, from Mexico to India, and back again to Amsterdam, before he manages to finally pull himself together and starts taking steps toward creating his own path. But all along his journey, he can’t shake thoughts of Lulu, the girl he lost before he could fully realize how important she might be. From reading Just One Day, we know more or less the “what” of what will happen at the end of this book. But it’s the “why” and the “how” that matter here, and finding the answers to these questions is what makes Just One Year so compelling.
I really enjoyed the mirrored storytelling here. Willem shows us key events that we only saw from Allyson’s point of view in Just One Day, and we start to realize just how narrow any one person’s perception can be. There’s so much that Allyson could not have known, but seeing events through Willem’s eyes, we finally get to see how intertwined their stories are, and how many near misses (and near collisions) they had over the course of their year apart.
I loved how skillfully the author weaves in elements from Just One Day, so that notes written in one book turn up in another; misunderstood conversations finally make sense; even a dismal family vacation takes on significance in all sorts of ways in Just One Year. It becomes clear as well how easily one person’s certainty can be wrong; something that Allyson believes she sees isn’t as it appears at all — and just may be the pivotal event that determines whether Allyson and Willem will ever manage to reconnect, no matter how close they’ve come.
It’s funny reading a book where you know the ending already. Just One Year follows the same timeline as Just One Day, so we know what the final scene must be. And still, I was on the edge of my seat on and off throughout Just One Year, wanting to stop Willem from giving up or making big mistakes, wanting to push him back a certain way or nudge him toward a different location. How many authors can keep you in suspense when you already know what’s going to happen? Now that really takes a great storyteller, and I’m happy to say that Gayle Forman succeeds.
Of course, I have a couple of minor quibbles. Certain sections of the narrative drag a bit. Willem spends a LOT of time in India, really just killing time, and maybe it’s a necessary part of his journey, but it felt long. Likewise for his Mexican quest that turns into a fiasco: I felt that these chapters just went on and on. Yes, the events ultimately move the story forward, but they could have been tightened up a bit.
On the other hand, I did love the emphasis on self-discovery. Mirroring Allyson’s year, Willem also spends the year learning more about himself and his family, figuring out what he wants, and finding out that he has much more in his life than he might have suspected. In both Allyson and Willem’s stories, the quest for the lost connection between the two is important, but isn’t the only driving factor. For both of them, there comes a realization that they may not succeed in finding the other person. One thing that I really appreciate in both of these stories is that they’re not romantic tragedies. The love story is important, but more as an impetus for growth and change than as a be-all and end-all for these characters. Yes, it will be sad if they don’t reconnect — but it won’t be the end of their lives, and they will go on, one way or the other.
All in all, Just One Year kept me glued and kept me emotionally invested. I wanted so badly for everyone to find happiness! Gayle Forman has created a deeply affecting and ultimately uplifting duo of books, doing a remarkable job of weaving together two parallel stories into one cohesive whole. I hated for it to end… so please, Gayle Forman, how about one more book? Allyson and Willem’s stories each end at the same point… and what I want to know is, what happens next? Even if they do find their HEA, I want to know more!
If you enjoy contemporary young adult fiction that’s smart, thoughtful, and emotionally rich — and not without moments of laughter and delight as well — check out Just One Day and Just One Year.
Oh. One last thing. It’s about the cover. In Just One Day, here’s Allyson seeing Willem for the first time:
I blink a few times. My eyes adjust, and I see that the guy is tall, maybe a full foot taller than I am, and thin. His hair is a hundred shades of blond, and his eyes so brown as to almost be black.
Hmm. Willem is blond. So who’s Allyson kissing on the cover of Just One Year???
Title: Just One Year
Author: Gayle Forman
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Young adult