One summer day in August, Willem met Allyson. Only he didn’t know her as Allyson then. All he knew was that it was a remarkable day. But when events conspire to keep Willem from getting back to Allyson, everything changes. Suddenly, Willem is back home in Amsterdam, the one place he has spent years avoiding as he tries to outrun his past. Over the course of the year, Willem will travel around the world and back as he tries to figure out his own fate, come to terms with his less-than-perfect family and find his own definition of happiness. Through it all, Allyson – Lulu – is in the back of his mind, pushing him to reconsider what he thought he knew.
Just One Year is Gayle Forman’s companion novel to her previous novel, Just One Day. Like the coins Willem flips between his fingers, they are two sides to the same story. Just One Year tells Willem’s half, his experiences during the year between his fateful meeting with Allyson and the surprising day when their paths finally reconnect again. To read and love one book is (in my opinion) to read and love the other just as much, because while Allyson and Willem have their own individual – and complete – stories to tell, together the novels reveal an even greater tale of love lost and love found. There isn’t anything overly fancy or stylized here; just Forman’s honest, unflinching rawness and her uncanny ability to make her readers feel intensely (or, as I’ve previously described it, “the urge to smile and cry at the same time”).
It’s nearly impossible to talk about Just One Year without talking about Just One Day. So much about my opinion of Willem was informed by Allyson’s experiences in Just One Day. But Just One Year finally gives us Willem’s perspective and we begin to see just how much more there is to him than maybe we first thought. In some ways, he is still the charming, dashing young man, determined to wander through life and flit from place to place. But Forman slowly pulls back the mask Willem seems to wear and shows the emotion simmering underneath the surface.
Throughout the year, Willem struggles to admit just how much his day with Allyson affected him. His reluctance to share with his friends and his trouble with letting other people in reveal a character long used to relying on himself. It’s only when Willem starts to fully admit to all that happened (and all that it means) that he realizes just how much he has changed – and just how important Allyson is because of that. In Just One Day, Allyson needed to learn how to find herself, after a lifetime to letting others make decisions for her. In Just One Year, Willem needs to learn how to stay in one place, to find a sense of peace within himself, instead of giving into instinct and running away.
“It was like she gave me her whole self, and somehow, as a result, I gave her more of myself than I even realized there was to give. But then she was gone. And only after I’d been filled up by her, by that day, did I understand how empty I really was.” (Pg. 208)
Both Just One Day and Just One Year are billed as Willem and Allyson’s love story and readers will root for a happy ending. But what I loved best about this duet of novels is that Forman makes it clear that Willem and Allyson reconnecting and riding off into the sunset isn’t necessarily the “end game.” Of course, we want the happy ending, but both Just One Day and Just One Year make it clear that Willem and Allyson don’t need to be together. Their individual journeys help them become the people they want to be; they are whole and complete, each on their own. Should they decide they want to be together, though, they will have something remarkable because they have each given the other the push that forced them to change for the better. In this way, Willem and Allyson’s relationship is one of choice – they both go to extraordinary levels to find another again because that they want, even if they don’t need.
Forman weaves a number of themes throughout both books and they serve to both tie the stories together and to stir up certain emotions. Allyson’s story of double happiness, the near-epic retelling of Bram and Yael’s love story, even Willem’s obsession with interlocking puzzle pieces – all add incredible depth and richness to the story, giving readers something to hold on to as much as Willem and Allyson. But it is Forman’s integration of Shakespeare – most especially the integration of As You Like It – that takes Just One Day and Just One Year to another level. The overlapping parallels between the Bard’s play and Willem and Allyson’s story not only add another level onto Forman’s books, but also serve as bookends: Shakespeare is what brings Willem and Allyson together for the first time, and it’s what pulls them to reconnect all those months later.
There will never be enough adequate words to describe a Gayle Forman novel, or the experience of reading one. So, lest I try and fail, I’ll simply say that Just One Year, and its companion Just One Day, are books that leave you stained – for the better.
[Photo Credit: Goodreads]