Trying to compare Gayle Foreman’s Just One Day and Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave is more difficult than comparing apples and oranges. It’s like comparing…the perfect macaron in a Parisian café to tinned sardines when you’re starving amidst an alien apocalypse. They are both something you would not want to miss—but they are very, very different things. While Just One Day can certainly be categorized as romance, I would more precisely term it a coming-of-age novel. The 5th Wave is falls squarely in the post-apocalyptic province. Both books are excellent examples of the genre they represent. Since we’re on the second round of the tournament now, plot summaries of Just One Day and The 5th Wave have already been done splendidly by my colleagues. Here I will direct my focus to the merits and weaknesses of each book.
The 5th Wave blends the action-oriented quest to survive with the exploration of philosophical theme, “Whom can I trust?” The shifting points of view in this novel highlight the isolation of each character as he or she is faced with the conundrum of distinguishing the good guys from the bad. As humanity faces possible extinction by aliens, the age-old question, “What does it mean to be human?” arises amidst the characters’ attempts to maintain hope, dignity, camaraderie, and love. The fast-paced plot works both for and against this book. The pages turn as secrets reveal themselves and the reader seeks to know who will live and how. However, the abrupt changes in point of view and time frame occasionally disorient the reader, and keeping track of the first four waves of the alien invasion is in itself a challenge! Also, because the extremity of the situation has distilled the protagonists’ lives to the bare essentials, the characterization sometimes feels sparse, lacking the endearing quirks that often enhance the sympathy one feels for the characters.
Just One Day, on the other hand, luxuriates in the rich details of setting, and the reader relishes the description of each character–even the obnoxious ones! Readers cheer for protagonist Allyson as she tentatively asserts her own identity against the one her parents have chosen for her and as she gains the confidence to pursue the mystery of what happened to Willem. Forman further explores the theme of self-definition through parallel and foil characters like Melanie, Allyson’s BFF from high school who reinvents herself monthly in college, and Dee, Allyson’s code-switching, out-and-proud, gay African-American study partner. At the close of this novel, the reader feels absolutely compelled to read the companion piece, Just One Year, which tells the same story from the elusive Willem’s perspective. Shall I count it a weakness of Just One Day that the story is not complete in the first book? Or is it Forman’s strength that she manages to show the other side of the coin with equal depth, detail, and pathos in the second book? (I know, I know, that’s cheating…I’m only supposed to review the first book for this comparison!) Still, if I have to pick “Just One Book” to move to the next round of the tournament purely on its own merits, I will pick Just One Day because of the richness of the life into which it draws the reader and the empathy it evokes for the characters, especially Allyson, in her voyage to find her own identity.
Winner: Just One Day by Gayle Forman.