Book Review: Just One Day by Gayle Forman

Just One DayAnother YA novel about “insta-love”? Haven’t we read enough of these already? Those were my thoughts when I picked up a copy of Gayle Forman’s new book, Just One Day. And I’m pleased to be able to report that my expectations about this book were quite wrong.

Main character Allyson is 18, fresh out of high school, and on a whirlwind, parent-sanctioned tour of Europe (“Teen Tours! Cultural Extravaganza” is the too-exuberant-for-words name of the program), along with her bestie Melanie. It’s all a big blur, during which the teens are shuttled from one significant destination to another, chaperoned and dosed with lessons about history and culture. Melanie hits the pubs and suffers hang-overs daily, while Allyson goes along dutifully, always the good girl, doing what’s expected of her.

On the final day of the program, as the group waits for a production of Hamlet in Stratford-upon-Avon, a free-spirited group of actors (whose troupe is called Guerilla Will)  invites the gang to ditch Hamlet and come see their production of Twelfth Night instead. In a rare burst of spontaneity, no doubt helped by the fact that the lead guy is so cute, Allyson decides to take a chance, and she and Melanie head off to the canal basin to see a free-ranging, outdoor, wildly inventive and exhilarating production. A perfect end to a so-so trip, and the girls are ready to catch the train to London and fly back home to their normal lives. Except… on the train, the cute guy appears, starts chatting with good girl Allyson, and in a moment that changes everything, invites (or challenges) her to hop a train to Paris — for just one day.

Cute guy’s name is Willem (he’s Dutch and dreamy), and he christens Allyson Lulu, in honor of Louise Brooks and Allyson’s new hair style. Lulu and Willem spend one fabulous day wandering the streets and alleys of Paris, living free and large, and falling — hard — for one another. Or so Allyson thinks… until she wakes up alone the next morning. Willem has left her without a trace, and Allyson’s heart is broken. Not only that, but our young lovers never got around to exchanging email addresses, cell phone numbers, or proper names (Willem only knows our sweetie as “Lulu”), so when the guy is gone, he’s gone for good.

And here’s where things get really interesting. Up until this point, I was a bit half-hearted about yet another story of a somewhat shy girl meeting the gorgeous guy of her dreams and falling instantly and irrevocably in love. In Just One Day, it’s not so simple. Allyson does fall hard for Willem, and he does seem to fall for her too — but it’s also clear that this is a guy with a girl in every city across Europe. Dude is a player, to put it mildly. So when he abandons Allyson after their one night, is it really so surprising?

Allyson heads home full of shame and self-loathing. She knew he was a chick-magnet. She saw his little black book. What else did she expect? Unfortunately, her one day of love in Paris ruins the start of her freshman year of college, and Allyson spends months in a deep depression, barely getting by academically, distancing herself from her roommates, and realizing that her friendship with Melanie has run its course as well.

The layer of all of this that’s really finely written and well-thought out is that Allyson is an only child, daughter of two parents who have raised her to be dutiful and good and to always aim to please. Allyson’s mother in particular seems to be reliving her own missed opportunities through Allyson. She picks her daughter’s classes, down to the exact time of day, shops for her clothes, and plans every moment of her life. Allyson is pre-med because that’s what her parents have convinced her she wants. She collects antique alarm clocks (weird, right?) because her mother decided it would be fun for her to have a collection. On and on, we see Allyson’s mother controlling her every move. But after Paris, Allyson finally starts to realize that maybe what she’s been told she wants isn’t really what makes her happy.

Over the course of her freshman year, Allyson slowly starts to find her own way, and it’s eye-opening. As she breaks out of her shell, she comes to realize that what she wants for herself may not match what her parents want — and more importantly, that she has the power to make her own decisions and find her own way. What I ended up loving about this book is the gradual, painstaking development of Allyson’s independence and self-esteem. She finally begins to emerge from her mother’s shadow and the sense of what is expected into a strong young woman who is willing and eager to take chances. By doing so, she’s ultimately able to embrace the choice she made to spend “just one day” in Paris, and many months later, to begin to consider the possibility that events may not have been exactly as she’d perceived them to be.

The book asks some interesting questions: Are fate and accidents really the same thing? Is there really only one great love in a person’s life? Is being good enough? How does a person figure out how to be? Through Allyson, we see a young woman’s journey toward individual growth and empowerment, and it’s actually quite lovely to watch her finally take the reins of her own life and start setting her own course.

The writing in Just One Day is fast-paced, a nice mix of introspection and adventure, and the plot zips along from month to month in engaging snippets and snapshots.

I have only two minor quibbles with Just One Day:

First — and perhaps it’s just that I’m not the target demographic and therefore can’t appreciate the underlying urge toward free-spiritedness — I have little to no tolerance for plot points that revolve around leaving important things to the whims of chance. Remember the movie Serendipity (didn’t like it) or even Before Sunrise (loved it), where the characters fall in love at first sight, but leave it up to fate to bring them back together, rather than — oh, I don’t know — exchanging vital information? Willem and Lulu/Allyson do the same thing in Just One Day, and it strains belief. Seriously, at some point it would have made sense to at least get each others’ last names… or phone numbers… or something. It’s the information age, people! Share your information!

Second, as part of my reading resolutions for 2013, I vowed that I would not start any new series. It was not until I was already half-way through the book that I saw the little blurb on the back announcing that “Just One Day is the first in a sweepingly romantic duet of novels.” The follow up novel, Just One Year will be released in the fall of 2013. Gah. Of course, I’ll read the next book, but I’m a little miffed about it all.

That said, Just One Day would work just fine as a stand-alone novel. It does have a very open-ended conclusion, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The book’s end leaves a lot of questions unanswered, and it’s certainly not clear what awaits Allyson. But that’s life, isn’t it? By the end, our main character has made choices, taken risks, and gained a willingness to take a chance and see how it turns out. Anything can happen when you’re open to life, and I think that’s more or less the point.

I enjoyed Just One Day very much (had a few bleary-eyed days following a few nights of staying up past midnight because I couldn’t put the book down), and I’m looking forward to reading more by Gayle Forman. The author captures the voice of her young adult characters in a way that is convincing and true, and I found myself enchanted by Allyson’s adventures and discoveries. Also — Paris!