Allyson Healey is your quintessential "good girl." As the only child of a doctor and a stay-at-home mom, she has always been subjected to the pressure to excel at everything she does academically and socially. When she graduates high school, her parents send her on a Teen Tours! of Europe, guareenteing she will have The Time Of Her Life and return a Cultured Young Lady. By the end of the tour, Allyson is feeling more stifled than challenged and has only made one sort-of friend, Ms. Foley, the tour guide, who wears "snow-white sneakers" and speaks in a hybrid British/American accent the other travelers enjoy mocking. "I must be bad at traveling," Allyson decides as she looks forward to her favorite part of the day, returning to the hotel to watch an American movie and fall asleep while everyone else is out at the pub. Enter Williem, a 6'3 Dutchman with a love of Shakespeare and a penchant for acting. When Allyson stumbles upon Willem's traveling troupe as they perform an unorthodox version of Shakespeare's The Twelfth Night, she is made aware that life is full of choices, or "accidents" as Willem calls them, and you can choose to ignore them or embrace them. For the first time in her life, Allyson chooses the latter and is swept up in a bohemian one day tour of Paris in which time becomes fluid and anythng's possible. She emerges on the other side impossibly stained, but when she wakes to find Willem gone, she can't help but wonder in the year that follows if that one day was a fluke or if the real Allyson is still wandering the backstreets of Paris. One thing she does know is that she'll have to go back to find out.
Swoon! Forman's tale of love and longing set against the backdrop of Paris - real Paris not the tourist version - is my krypyonite. It is a sweeping travelogue, both internal and external, and peopled with fantastically unique and fully fleshed out characters. I was immediately captivated by Allyson and Willem's relationship, which propelled me through the first 100+ pages of the novel at warp speed. With just one day to spend together, Allyson and Willem can't be still. If they are, they'll hit bottom, which is exactly what happens when Allyson wakes the next day to find Willem gone. Together we panicked and cried and called Ms. Foley who rides in on her white sneakers to the rescue. Just one more example of how pitiful Allyson's situation is.
This book is more than a romance novel though. The romance is merely a catalyst for self-discovery and growth. When I reached the end of Part One and Willem had exited stage left, I thought what could the rest of this book possibly be about? And I'll admit, Allyson is a bit mopey and withdrawn at first, but then with the prodding of an amazing guidance counselor, who only makes a cameo but very important appearance in the novel, she starts doing things and meeting people, like Dee, who is the master of multiple identities, stating, "This is myself, baby. All of my selves. I own each and every one of them. I know who I'm pretending to be and who I am" (217). The novel's theme that things are not always what they seem abounds in the identity instability of Allyson on that day, her best friend Melanie through their first year of college, and the numerous references to Shakespeare's problem plays, but nowhere are they more perfectly executed then in the totally lovable, totally memorable character of Dee, who helps Allyson begin the transformation from shell to self because, as he so astutely observes, "the people we pretend to be, they're already in us. That's why we pretend to be them in the first place" (237).
Despite my swooniness and my cheerleading for Allyson as she begins to make decisions for herself and finally stands up to her mother, the logical side of me could never completely suspend disbelief and submurse myself in a world where it would not be totally dangerous to go off with limited funds and no cell phone to a foreign city where you don't speak the language with a guy who doesn't know your real name and you met less than 24 hours ago. That's what keeps this novel from being five stars for me; however, I am anxiously awaiting Willem's side of the story in Just One Year. When I finished the book, in just a couple of hours mind you, I immediately googled the release date for Just One Year, which is this fall - yay!! When you read something like this, how can you not be in their corner?
"We kiss again. This next kiss is the kind that breaks open the sky. It steals my breath and gives it back. It shows me that every other kiss I've had in my life has been wrong" (127).
Best matched with those who like a little coming of age romance with their wanderlust.
Bonus story: When my husband got home from work yesterday, I greeted him as follows, "I promise I will cook you dinner soon, but I HAVE TO finish this book! I only have like 30 pages left." He just shook his head and went to take a shower. When he re-emerged, I was still swoony over the book about Paris and lost love when my husband looked at me and very seriously said, "I wouldn't have lost you in the first place." I made the Rory Gilmore Harlequin romance face and almost cried. My husband and I have been together for almost ten years, and the electricity of young love has mostly worn off, so when I read something like Just One Day, sometimes I'm jealous of the newness of falling in love, but what my husband reminded me last night is that the excitement at the beginning of a new relationship is replaced with something deeper and more stable and infinitely worthwhile, if you're lucky. And let me tell you, I've never been luckier in my life.