As Allyson’s time on her trip through Europe comes to an end, she and her long-time best friend Melanie decide to go off-course. Instead of attending the play they’re supposed to as part of the tour, they see a street performance of Twelfth Night. It’s there where Allyson first sees Willem. It’s there where Allyson decides she needs to do something more in her last days of the tour.
It’s there where Willem convinces Allyson to join him for one day through Paris.
Allyson, who always sticks to the rules, decides to do it. And the trip is magical. It’s imperfect — her and Willem have an argument, she gets injured from a stranger — but it sets her heart on fire with possibility. When Allyson wakes up the morning after this adventure and Willem is gone, Allyson’s crushed. But she trudges on back to meet Melanie after a teary phone call with the trip coordinator (who helps her navigate Paris since Allyson doesn’t speak the language) and then, she’s back to America and back to begin her first year at college in Boston.
Just One Day follows Allyson as she adjusts to college life. But it’s not her college life. It’s the one her mother created for her, and it’s the one she dutifully follows. Allyson’s not happy, though. She misses Willem. She wants to know what happens. When she gets to chance to see Melanie again — who is going to college in Manhattan — Allyson feels so out of sorts. Melanie keeps changing and Allyson, well, she feels like she’s in the same place.
That first semester of college is anything but great. Allyson doesn’t get good grades, she’s unhappy, and yes, there is a lot of moping around on her part. It’s when she’s called into the guidance counselor’s office prior to second semester — after a disastrous few days with her mom and dad — that she decides to drop her pre-med track. She takes a risk, and it ends up paying off quite a bit for her.
Although the change is anything but easy, Allyson finds passion. And she knows that she needs to go back to Paris and look for Willem again.
Gayle Forman’s new novel is, of course, superbly written. The sights, the sounds, and the tastes come alive through the prose. Likewise, the story itself and what it accomplishes in bringing about the importance of pursuing your passions for yourself and not for someone else — for taking risks, regardless of the positive or negative outcomes — is excellent. The thing is, it’s not entirely new or fresh, despite the setting. I feel like what this book achieves is what Kirsten Hubbard achieves in her novel Wanderlove and what I feel like Nina LaCour accomplishes in The Disenchantments. That should make it clear this book has a readership, and there will be many fans who fall for the story (and rightly so) and then have additional titles they can then turn to after.
Allyson’s character is moody. She’s prickly and ornery and I really liked that about her. She’s not entirely likable, nor should she be. She’s razzed quite a bit by Melanie for being this way, and even Willem gives her a little bit of grief about it. Her roommates in college do the same, and even Dee, the guy she befriends in her Shakespeare class, gives her some thoughts on this. Allyson is just that way, but it’s enhanced by the longing she experiences for Willem. To be fair, it took a lot for me to suspend my disbelief that his one day with her could cause an entire year for her to basically be a wash with moping about him — but Forman’s book required this on me as a reader a few times. It wasn’t just the longing over the guy from one day, but it was Allyson’s all-too-willing agreement to go along with a stranger in the first place (especially since it took her so long to even skip out on watching a performance with her tour group). It was also Allyson’s ability to change up her classes at the university without her mother once finding out, until it was too late.
I didn’t quite think the characters in this story were consistent. Part of this is because of Allyson: since the story’s in her perspective and she’s in such a transition in her life, many of those in her life will appear to her as different things at different times. Allyson’s mother, though, became problematic. At first, it’s clear mom has a big role in who Allyson is. Mom’s prescribed a life for Allyson based on her own lost dreams; this isn’t speculation, it’s actually there in the book. However, knowing how much her mom wanted to keep an eye on her made me question then how it was even possible for Allyson to get away with changing her classes for an entire semester. How she tricked her mom about it when she visited for President’s Day. The inconsistency in her mother frustrated me because it was her mother who had had such an impact on Allyson’s current life and on her mentality that she simply “couldn’t” do what she wanted to do for herself.
My biggest concern came at the end of the book. We know Allyson’s moping about losing Willem, and when she makes the choice to go back to Paris and look for him (after, I should add, she takes a job, stands up to her parents, and makes this trip happen for herself), she realizes he’s a lost cause. He’s been described as a player, and after meeting other people in his life, she’s less-than-thrilled with who he is in reality, rather than what she saw of him that one day. Spoiler alert here — she reunites with Willem at the end of the story. As she’s ready to hit the airport and fly home, after she’s declared how great it is to be independent and make her own choices for herself and not let anyone stand in her way, after she talks about how she doesn’t need Willem anymore because she’s happy for herself . . . she hunts him down, knocks on his door, and walks right in. The moment that Allyson shows she has incredible agency, she gives it away. This is not to say that romance cannot win out in a story. It can. The problem is that she’d just learned how he wasn’t who she thought he was and she’d just figured out that being on her own was good. So then to give it all up right away? It made me annoyed. Compounding this was the fact in every instance Allyson had to make friends, especially female friends, she throws it away or uses them to find this boy. Wren? A tool. Kelly? A tool. Melanie? Well, she was out of the picture by then anyway. It felt like this solution was too clean and easy. Sure it was the romance, sure it was the chance to start it all again with those feelings, but it was at the expense of the agency she had just fought so hard to earn for herself.
This is a good book, despite the flaws, though be warned there are times the story drags a bit. It’s because Allyson’s not always the most fun to read about, especially as she becomes weary about never seeing Willem again. But I comment Forman for writing a flawed but realistic character, and a character who is easy to not like. There were numerous times, especially at the beginning of Allyson’s college career, where I saw a lot of myself in her and I sympathized for the situation she was in. The pressure pressed upon her by her family and by herself to impress her family was palpable.
Just One Day has great appeal for readers who want a story set abroad, set in college, or a story about a girl struggling to find herself. Again, it will have huge appeal to readers who loved the travel or the plot arc in Hubbard’s Wanderlove or LaCour’s The Disenchantments. Those who loved Stephanie Perkins’s Anna and the French Kiss will eat this one up for not only the setting, but the romantic elements. I’m eager to see where Forman takes this story in the companion, Just One Year. I’ve got a feeling we’ll get Willem’s story, which is good since I spent the bulk of the book wondering what was so appealing about him anyway. He’s not the kind of guy a reader can easily swoon over. At least, if they’re into a romance for more than the fact the love interest is a foreigner.
Just One Day is available now through Penguin/Dutton. Review copy received from the publisher.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).