lip lit: just one day
Just One Day opens, somewhat counter-intuitively, at the end of an adventure: Allyson has been on a guided tour through Europe, and is thoroughly underwhelmed by the experience. This trip is a barely-disguised Contiki tour for American teens, with rigid daytime itineraries and hedonistic nightly pub-crawls. On her last night with the group in London, she sneaks away to watch a guerilla performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. At the play, Allyson feels an instant connection with one of the actors, charismatic Dutch boy Willem. Through a series of unlikely occurrences, and despite her wallflower inclinations, she is whisked off to spend “just one day” with him in Paris. And here, the improbable plot twists begin, kickstarting the book’s romantically whimsical plot.
Just One Day indulges a torrent of clichés, of the sort more commonly found in romcoms. There’s the immediate attraction to a sensitive but mysterious stranger; the impulsive trip to Paris; plentiful references to Shakespeare; love found and lost and thwarted; and the constant presence of serendipity. All these elements will be familiar to starry-eyed imbibers of romantic pop culture.
The scenes depicting Willem and Allyson’s day in Paris, and the rich variety of life in the city, are gorgeously written. Forman deftly captures the thrilling moments travellers search for, when a total absence of familiarity transforms into the certainty that they’re precisely where they’re meant to be. Allyson is initially infuriated by the constant stares and smiles of strange men, which will be familiar to any woman who has travelled in a foreign place. Eventually, she reframes her view, and rather than allowing herself to feel objectified, she chooses the pleasure of believing that the city of Paris itself “acknowledged you, winked at you, accepted you”. Small observations such as this will resonate with anyone who feels the pull of wanderlust.
Allyson awakes the next morning to discover Willem has disappeared while she slept. She is devastated, and feels abandoned and used. She longs to retain the strong, adventurous spirit which possessed her during that one day in Paris, but in Willem’s sudden absence finds she is unable to recapture it. The rest of the story follows Allyson’s first year at college, as she attempts to understand Willem’s disappearance and to track him down.
What prevents Just One Day from becoming a moony wish-fulfillment fantasy, is Allyson herself. At times, she can be difficult to like; she is emotionally inarticulate, introverted, and self-absorbed. She’s also maddeningly self-deprecating, and her ready dismissal of her looks contains an implied awareness of her attractiveness (an infuriatingly common trait among female protagonists of young adult books). But all these attributes only serve to highlight the realistic vulnerability and multidimensionality of her character.
There is a limit to readers’ tolerance for an angst-ridden narrator, and Forman stretches it. Allyson spends the middle section of the book repressing memories of Willem and the freedom she felt with him for one day. She shuts out her friends and family, and avoids potential happiness wherever it presents. These symptoms of depressive adolescence are as miserable to read as they are to experience. ‘I don’t know who I am,’ she laments, ‘Or maybe I do know who I am and I just don’t want to be her anymore’. It’s a trite insight, but the teenage longing for an undefined emancipation nonetheless rings true.
Refreshingly, Allyson’s emergence from this state of miserable, confused inertia is not conditional on Willem’s reappearance. It is, finally, her inner strength and fortitude which enable her to achieve happiness. The quest to track down Willem is the narrative’s most obvious imperative, but not its main one. The book’s real focus is Allyson’s personal journey towards finding the adventurous, independent person she became for one day, and longs to be again.
Just One Day is published by E P Dutton & Co Inc