When Bad Marketing Happens to Good Books: Just One Year by Gayle Forman
Sometimes the wind blows you places you weren't expecting: sometimes it blows you away from those places, too.
When I found an early copy of Just One Year on the shelf at University Bookstore in Seattle last week, I could not have been more thrilled. The sequel to Just One Day (which I loved) was hands-down one of my my anticipated novels of the season. I couldn't wait to see where Allyson and Willem's story went, since Just One Year promised to "pick up where Just One Day ended."
Except that's a lie. Just One Year doesn't pick up where Just One Day, the book, ended. Instead, it begins as just one day, the day Allyson and Willem spent together, ends. If you've read Just One Day, you know that it spans the year following that day, so Just One Year effectively hits rewind on the timeline for the thing that happens on the final page of Just One Day.
It's important to understand that how the Just One Year has been marketed and the actual story between the covers are two entirely different things.
iIt's nearly impossible to discuss this novel without considering that disconnect.
Just One Year is told from the first person point-of-view of Dutch 21 year-old sometimes actors, aways wandering spirit, Willem, whom American Allyson meets and spends a magical day in Paris with at the end of a summer tour of Europe. He seemingly ditches Allyson after that day, having disappeared while supposedly going to get the pair's breakfast. While Just One Day chronicles Allyson's transformative year following that day, Just One Year follows Willem's path during that same timeframe.
Sometimes fate or life or whatever you want to call it, leaves a door a little open and you walk through it. But sometimes it locks the door and you have to find the key, or pick the lock, or knock the damn thing down. And sometimes, it doesn’t even show you the door, and you have to build it yourself.
Willem is an intriguing character. In Just One Day, he was fairly enigmatic, and at times, I struggled to sympathize with why Allyson was so stuck on the day she spent with him--except, that day in many ways was not about Willem, but about what he represented in her life.
Regardless, I was eager to find out what made Willem tick, and Just One Day delivered on that very satisfyingly.
At the core of Willem's story is the story of his parents, Bram and Yael. Bram died three years prior to the events of this novel, but the loss still looms over Willem.
Bram's death gutted me. It did. But that was then and I've been okay so I'm not sure why it feels so raw again now.
His parents' love story is a near-storybook one, and Willem idealizes it. Following Bram's death, both Willem and his mother (Yael) retreat in travel; Yael ensconces herself in India as an Ayurvedic practitioner and Willem in his wandering the globe, floating from one far-flung locale to another, never making any meaningful connections (until Allyson, naturally).
Yael was never the parent with whom Willem was close, and I usually find myself frustrated be parental reconciliation stories. However, Yael and Willem's relationship arc in Just One Year is quite realistic. There's no magical resolution, but the seeds of understanding are planted, and that's immensely rewarding. This element of Just One Year reminded me of what made me love Just One Day so much--the quiet exploration of relationships, the search for independence, the understanding of family and the tension between free will and fate.
My mother and I, we both speak Dutch and English. But we never could speak the same language.
I appreciate that this pair of books tackles a lot of unusual themes, particularly related to family and self-determination.
Those are challenging themes and not the easiest sell, and Forman is brave to follow up the romance-infused If I Stay/Where She Went duology with a pair of novels that goes in such a different direction. Which, I imagine is why the publisher chose to sell Just One Day/Just One Year as something else--and that's a problem.
Allyson doesn't appear in Just One Year until the second to last page of the book. For a pair of novels pitched as a "romantic duet," it's pretty difficult to evoke "romance" when the main couple is entirely out of contact on all but two pages. There's longing and wishing, and some readers may be satisfied with just that, but I felt a bit cheated.
As I read Just One Year, I kept waiting for the resolution to the scene at the end of Just One Day, as I was eager to see how their reunion would play out, if the transformations both experienced because of that day would mean that they could have a relationship.
So, I reiterate: If Just One Day/Just One Year had been marketed as character-driven novels about the notion of fate versus free will, I would not have been disappointed. But because they sold to readers as a "sweepingly romantic duet of novels," complete with a kissing cover (with a male mode that looks disturbingly like John Mayer *shudder*), it's hard to read the followup without feeling deceived.
As a character-driven standalone novel, I loved Just One Year.
Sure, there are a few too many conveniences used (Laura pointed out Willem's natural acting prowess as one; I was bothered by the heavy-handed parallels between the Yael/Bram and Allyson/Willem), and there's a big fat elephant in the room throughout the story in the form of Willem's obvious and never-addressed depression (the closest Forman's story comes to examining this is a vague implication that Yael knows what's going on with him). And yet, I was sucked into Willem's story and blew through Just One Year in "just one day" (yes, I am very punny).
...I find myself wishing for the anonymity of the road, where you had no past and no future either, just that one moment in time. And if that moment happened to get sticky or uncomfortable, there was always a train departing at the next moment.
Gayle Forman is an outstanding writer and gets into characters' heads--especially male characters--in a way matched by few others. Readers who clicked with Just One Day and Allyson's personal journey will also likely appreciate Willem's struggles with finding himself. However, if you were unsatisfied with Just One Day, and perhaps found Allyson's privileged point-of-view frustrating, you'll find much of the same in Willem.
Gripes aside, I quite liked Just One Year and recommend it to readers looking for a quiet, character driven story with an authentic male voice. The writing is lovely and while the pace is slower than is popular, it never drags. I truly enjoyed the experience of reading Just One Year.
I simply wish that Penguin had the guts to market Just One Year as the book it is, rather than the book it thinks will sell. Readers are smarter than that and deserve better.