I remember visiting Paris a few summers ago with my family during vacation. Sure, there were no buggies that came trundling down the street at the strike of midnight a la "Midnight in Paris", nor were there kisses with mysterious boys on the top of the Eiffel Tower (hey, I was like, fourteen years old then). Gayle Forman's new novel "Just One Day" whisks readers away to the much-adored city of love, where new and exciting discoveries await you in every corner.
When sheltered American good girl Allyson "LuLu" Healey first meets laid-back Dutch actor Willem De Ruiter at an underground performance of Twelfth Night in England, there’s an undeniable spark. After just one day together, that spark bursts into a flame, or so it seems to Allyson, until the following morning, when she wakes up after a whirlwind day in Paris to discover that Willem has left. Over the next year, Allyson embarks on a journey to come to terms with the narrow confines of her life, and through Shakespeare, travel, and a quest for her almost-true-love, to break free of those confines.
In stories like this one, where nothing fantastically extraordinary happens to the protagonist (e.g. dark, brooding boy turns out to be vampire, or a war against enemy soldiers can only be stopped by a single hero), characters are of utmost importance. Allyson is not a particularly extraordinary person, either, but that's what makes "Just One Day" that much more believable and poignant. She may not be the bravest, or most kick-ass heroine I've met while reading, but Allyson is a normal girl trying to find herself--the one journey every single person out there takes at some point in their lives--and this is precisely what drives the story. I like Allyson because she reminds me quite a lot of myself. In fact, there's something every reader can relate to in Allyson. She's worked so hard at school to come to where she is now, but, in the end, book smarts just isn't enough. As cheesy as this sounds, it's the real world out there that matters, and it's the experiences and mistakes and moments of fate that really make life, life.
Willem was the perfect person in the book to show Allyson this truth about life, and I couldn't think of a better character to do that. Not only is he an undeniably good-looking fella, but he's so exciting and so dynamic--the ideal foil to Allyson's character. That being said, Willem also has his flaws. He's a player, and harbours an uncomfortable past back in Holland. But all the better to really push Allyson, the sheltered good girl, out of her comfort zone and into the real world. Willem and Allyson really got me thinking, that if every Allyson out there is able to encounter their Willem, amazing things could happen. And that's the thing about this book: it's so applicable to our own lives, and, in this way, all the more inspiring.
Philosophical musings about characters aside, the setting of "Just One Day" was, without a doubt, magical without idealizing Paris. Ms. Forman has done an incredible job of showing her readers a new side of the much-idolized city, one straying away from the archetypal Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, and one that opens up our eyes to another side of Paris, one with art shacks and unknown channels that are enchanting in their own way. It's obvious that Ms. Forman has done a lot of research into the city and its language, and the acknowledgements at the end of the book reveal the extent of her investigations and work.
Although the first half or so of the book follows Allyson and Willem on their one-day journey in Paris, the latter half covers the span of a year as Allyson trudges through her freshman year in college. I do think that this section was a bit slow at times--there were many moments when I felt like nothing was really happening and it was just "I need to discover myself" sprinkled at the end of each chapter. Having said that, the wonderful cast of characters such as the effervescent Dee and the sweet family of Cafe Finlay definitely made it a lot more interesting, and the pace picked right back up again in the last quarter. My heart was racing as my eyes sped over the last couple of chapters!
All in all, "Just One Day" is an beautifully poignant book about real life and self-discovery. Allyson and Willem were the perfect characters to illustrate this, and Paris--a place of excitement and magic--certainly didn't hurt either. Ms. Forman's books really have a tendency to touch their readers in that way--I remember feeling amazed and at once pensive after reading her "If I Stay" series. I even let out a little squeal when I saw at the end of the book that the story continues, told from Willem's point of view in "Just One Year"!!!! It's so cute how it's a romantic duet of novels. I absolutely cannot wait to see how everything turns out!