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Sunday, November 3, 2013

'Just One Year' by Gayle Forman

 From the BLURB: 

Twenty-four hours can change your life . . . 

Allyson and Willem share one magical day together in Paris, before chance rips them apart. 

The romantic, emotional companion to Just One Day, this is a story of the choices we make and the accidents life throws at us. 

But is one day enough to find your fate?

Willem left Allyson ‘Lulu’ Healey in an abandoned Paris loft one morning, with every intention of coming back. But then he got waylaid and beaten, ended up in a hospital days later with a vague sense of loss . . . and by the time memories of Lulu came back to him, it was too late. She was gone, and all Willem had left was a nickname he’d given her, for a passing resemblance to Louise Brooks.

Now Willem is back in Amsterdam, to settle a deceased estate and meet up with old friends. But he cannot get Lulu out of his head. He begins a search for his American girl, but hits roadblocks at every turn.

And as Willem thinks on and remembers the fleeting day he had with Lulu, he also confronts even older ghosts from his past. Like his mother who he hasn’t properly spoken to in three years, his forever absent uncle and the pain of his father’s death three years prior.

‘Just One Year’ is the sequel, of sorts, and continuing journey to Gayle Forman’s ‘Just One Day’ which was Allyson’s side of things, and came out in January this year.

Ok. Here’s the thing. A lot of people are going to have issues with this book – and for a very good, glaringly obvious reason. But that’s not my reason for not liking this book. It’s perhaps a footnote in my dislike, but not the driving reason behind my two-star rating. 

As many people will have worked out, ‘Just One Year’ picks up where Allyson’s story in Paris left off – with Willem in a hospital bed, groggy after an encounter with some skinheads and too late in returning to his Lulu. Unlike Allyson’s ‘Just One Day’, we don’t read about their fleeting Paris moment from Willem’s perspective which is both a blessing and a curse. Blessing, because parts of the book are already tedious to read through when we know what moment Forman is reaching for. But a curse because Willem really starts ‘Just One Year’ on the back-foot and in the black books with many readers who were not left with a great impression of him by the end of Allyson’s book. Throughout ‘Just One Year’ he thinks and talks about Lulu quite a lot, remembering moments and conversations he had with her, musing on their stain-love conversation and that he felt home when with her. But it might have been nice to read their day together from his perspective, if only for readers to be rest assured that it meant as much to him as it did to her. 

I admit, I was not keen to read Willem’s story. It was because I was so invested in Allyson’s book and so felt for her – the left behind girl. Forman maybe did too good a job at the end of ‘Just One Day’, to have me (and many other readers!) cursing Willem and hoping Allyson would move on from him. So the task Forman had before her in ‘Just One Year’ was a big one, to turn Willem around and endear him to readers when he tells his side of things. Whether or not this book works for you hinges entirely on whether or not Forman can convince you as to Willem’s sincerity and deserving of Allyson . . . and, sadly, he never convinced me. 

It felt like a lot of Willem’s intended appeal lay in his good looks. Many times Forman reminds readers that he’s really, really ridiculously good looking. It bugs me so much when authors do this, though it is normally referring to female characters. At one point a Bollywood big-wig (!) likens Willem to Heath Ledger. Eye-roll. I think all this praising and reminding of Willem’s good looks was to legitimize the reason any girl within a 2-kilometre radius wants to climb him like a tree, and to let readers know that Willem has taken quite a few ladies up on the offer. Because, make no mistake, Willem is a complete Casanova; ‘a girl in every port’ style Casanova. I will point out that when Forman writes from male POV, she does this a lot – like promiscuity is a defining masculine trait. She did it in ‘Where She Went’ too, when we got Adam’s perspective and realized that as a big-deal rock star he’d had his fair share of ladies. Now, in both Adam and Willem’s cases their lady-loving is entirely legit. Rockstar and Heath Ledger lookalike – they’re bound to do well. It’s just that I don’t necessarily care and sometimes I think it’s a lazy way to build a male character by giving him this machismo. 

Of course, Forman piles on the reasons for Willem’s fleeting nature and his inability to even want to commit to a woman. It’s his mother. Of course. And here, Forman offers an abundance of Freudian reasons for why Willem is the way he is. His father died three years ago, and was one half of the love story to end all love stories with Willem’s Israeli mother, Yael. Yael, he reasons, has never really felt invested in her son since he’s only the interloper who interrupted her great love-affair. But she’s not all bad, Forman slathers on the reasons to feel sympathy for Willem via his mother – she’s an alternative healing nurse who works in a clinic amongst the prostitutes of India, has been especially emotionally closed off since her husband died and has dark memories of her days in the Israeli army. Phew and yeesh. 

Interestingly, the only time my interested was piqued in this book was when Willem recounts the story of how his mother and father first met, and how it was fate that Bram’s brother Daniel hadn’t been the one to woo a hitchhiking Yael. Willem’s Uncle Daniel does appear in the book (too little, too late at the very end) but his story actually interested me a lot more than anyone else’s in ‘Just One Year’. 

The other reason Willem didn’t work for me was his privileged background. He’s really, really rich and when he was younger his family houseboat featured in an architectural magazine (it was designed by his father). Look, Allyson was also from a privileged, middle-class background but I was interested in the ways she was railing against it – studying university courses she wasn’t interested in, figuring out why her ex-best friend insists on being a phony-hipster, feeling claustrophobic from her mother’s love and meeting the fabulous Dee who had a very different life to her and opened her eyes. Willem is living off family money and traipsing all over the globe with it. I don’t care that he roughs it when he’s on that road – he’s still a rolling stone with a busload of cash to fund his itchy-feet. I just couldn’t muster a whole hell of a lot of sympathy for that. 

I mean, I did feel for Willem’s grief over his father’s death three years ago. And it’s in these moments of grief that Forman’s natural ability shines and she writes some truly beautiful passages;  

In my rucksack, the one that got stolen on that train to Warsaw, had been an old digital camera. And on that camera were photographs of me and Yael and Bram from my eighteenth birthday. They were some of the last photos I had of the three of us together, and I hadn’t even discovered them until I was on the road, bored one night and going through all the shots on my memory stick. And there we were. 
I should’ve had those pictures emailed somewhere. Or printed. Done something permanent. I planned to, I did. But I put it off and then my rucksack got nicked and it was too late.The devastation caught my off guard. There’s a difference between losing something you knew you had and losing something you discovered you had. One is a disappointment. The other is truly a loss. 
I didn’t realize that before. I realize it now. 

But. Okay. That was three years ago? I think this book might have been improved if Bram’s death had been more recent – three years ago felt stale and Willem’s emotions were muted because of it. 

But, really, my biggest issue with ‘Just One Year’ was – why do we need it? I felt this way about ‘Where She Went’ too (but I enjoyed that book a lot more). I really didn’t know why Forman felt the need to add-on or tamper with the perfection of ‘If I Stay’, and I feel that way about ‘Just One Day’ and the tacked-on ‘Just One Year’ too. We just don’t need it. I don’t know what was happening in ‘Just One Year’, what it was about – Willem’s journey of self-discovery was weak for me, and there was no real story. It was all so lacklustre – coming to terms with three-years-old grief, kinda searching for a girl and visiting his mother. So what? Allyson’s story was much more coming-of-age and so much stronger, to the point that when she found Willem at the end of ‘Just One Day’ it did feel like an end; she’d had enough emotional and personal growth that finding Willem again was a minor note in her bigger story. The end of ‘Just One Year’ however, felt like the beginning and everything that came before was fat that should have been cut. I think this book suffers from telling the wrong story – it should have been what came after, not before.



  1. I liked Just One Day while I was reading it but it wasn't until later that I realised just how much it had actually disappointed me - and perhaps part of this was my own fault, because I loved If I Stay and Where She Went SO SO much. Any book was bound to fall short in my eyes after those two.

    I did find Allyson incredibly whiny and self-pitying and to be honest, it was kind of hard to muster up much sympathy for her after one day with some guy. I'm a bit meh about whether or not I should read this because I really didn't like Willem that much in JOD and he kinda bored me. Enough was made of his perfection in that book, I don't really want to read another homage to his looks and wealth and all round awesomeness.

    1. Completely see how 'Just One Day' could be one of those books you happily enjoy while reading, but afterwards when you sit down to write a review you go, "Actually..."

      And if you didn't like Willem in 'One Day' (like I didn't) chances are 'One Year' will frustrate the hell out of you. He was not redeemed or made likable for me in this one, unfortunately.


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