Just One Year: review

Just One Year: reviewJust One Year by gayle forman
Series: Just One Day #2
Published by Dutton Children’s on October 10th, 2013
Genres: contemporary
Pages: 336
Format: ARC


When he opens his eyes, Willem doesn’t know where in the world he is—Prague or Dubrovnik or back in Amsterdam. All he knows is that he is once again alone, and that he needs to find a girl named Lulu. They shared one magical day in Paris, and something about that day—that girl—makes Willem wonder if they aren’t fated to be together. He travels all over the world, from Mexico to India, hoping to reconnect with her. But as months go by and Lulu remains elusive, Willem starts to question if the hand of fate is as strong as he’d thought. . . .

The romantic, emotional companion to Just One Day, this is a story of the choices we make and the accidents that happen—and the happiness we can find when the two intersect.

Just One Day was one of my favorite books of 2013.  It follows a young American woman, Allyson, as she abandons her tour group on a senior class trip to embark on an impulsive, one-day-long romance in Paris with a worldly young Dutchman named Willem.  And when that day is over, Allyson picks up the pieces and spends the next year reassembling herself and growing into a strong, independent woman who fits into the big world that has always existed outside the safe confines of her upper middle-class existence.

That book works largely because of Allyson.  She is such a gift of a narrator, and feels so incredibly real to me  She’s the kind of young woman I imagine my mother might once have been. And while I loved Allyson (maybe because I loved her), I felt deeply distrustful of Willem.  He is just so, so similar to who I was at his age—in good ways and bad—and people like us are not kind to the Allysons of the world.  I started crying halfway through their day together in Paris in anticipation of what was going to happen.  And then I cried again when I was proven right.  I kind of cried a lot, I guess.

So here’s the weird thing about Just One Year: Very early in the book, which is told from Willem’s perspective, we learn why he left, and what happened to him afterwards, and… It’s wrong.  When I read his explanation, I set the book down and didn’t reopen it for about a week, because, guys, I know Willem.  I know the kind of fear that drives him, and I know why he behaves the way he does, and the explanations laid out in the book were not honest.  It felt—and this is going to sound absolutely insane, because it is—it felt like a betrayal, like I was being told that Willem and I, with our crippling interpersonal claustrophobia, weren’t good enough have our stories told honestly.

So I took a break.  I read a few palate-cleansing romance novels.  I revisited some of my favorite poetry.  In the course of my reading, I happened upon “Travel,” by Edna St Vincent Millay:

The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.

…And it filled all my hollow places with a deep, cold, almost crippling ache (I know that sounds cheesy, but I can’t describe the visceral reaction I had any other way), and just like that I was pulled back into Willem’s story.

I’m so glad I was, and that I gave this novel a second chance, because it really is a lovely companion piece to Allyson’s journey.  It is a completely different book from the previous one, though, because Willem and Allyson have to grow in very different ways—she needs to break free from her stifling, somewhat controlling parents and spend some time alone to figure out what it is that she wants from life; he needs to snap out of his deliberately lonely existence and learn to actually commit to things outside what comes easily to him—and because Allyson’s story grows outward, it is ultimately much more compelling than Willem’s, which feels almost like it is shrinking as it develops.

Just One Year also suffers a bit early on in comparison to its predecessor because the travel scenes—which are otherwise excellent—kind of rehash things we’ve already seen through Allyson’s eyes.  I really appreciate Forman’s sticking to the pattern, established in the previous book, of introducing a catalyst for change about a third of the way through the novel, but in this case that first third drags. It’s really kind of a bummer.

And I hate to say this because, again, we really are kindred spirits, but Willem’s emotional detachment makes him a difficult narrator to empathize with.  He meets some lovely people (I particularly love Kate and Prateek, and poor Ana Lucia deserves her own novel), and he is able to form strong attachments almost immediately, but he never seems to connect with the people in his life in any meaningful way, and I found myself, as the reader, feeling as though I was being kept at arm’s length for a large part of the story.

Still, while I would consider this to be one of Forman’s lesser works, it is very, very good, and is absolutely worth reading if you enjoyed Just One Day and are interested in seeing Willem’s side of the story.   And I may be in the minority here, but I found the ending to be enormously satisfying.

P.S. Fans of Forman’s If I Stay books will be happy to see a tiny update about a beloved character from that series.  It’s kind of exciting.

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