I was a big fan of both If I Stay and Where She Went, Gayle Forman's previous story pairings, and she is following the same formula this time around, too--but without the emotional heft--telling the story from the girl's perspective in one book and the boy's perspective in the sequel.
Allyson is on her Teen Tours! tour in England, a high school graduation gift from her parents, when she meets a handsome young Dutch Shakespearean actor. They click immediately and spend a day and night together in Paris. After a simply marvelous and unforgettable time (in which she feels freer and more risk-taking than ever before in her life) Allyson thinks they're falling in love, but when she wakes up the next morning, Willem is missing.
Eventually convincing herself that he was just a player, she heads back to the US and to college, where she mopes for her entire freshman year. She can't make new friends easily and her former best friend from childhood drifts apart from her. She also can't tell her parents that she's dropped pre-med classes and doesn't want to be a doctor, their plan for her since she was a girl.
She does enroll in a Shakespeare Out Loud class at the urging of the school counselor, where she finally makes her first college friend, the mercurial D'Angelo, and life at least starts to interest Allyson again, even if she doesn't feel quite successful at it. When she finally decides that she wants to go back to Paris to try to find Willem, she's able to get a bit more direction in her life, and the second half of the book is devoted to her finding a job to pay for French classes and her two-week trip back to France, then her actual search for Willem.
It's true that Allyson goes a bit Twilight-Bella-like with her moping after Willem's disappearance, but I was able to pardon her for it in the midst of her own identity crisis. She has no idea who she is because all of her life she's been living her parents' dreams for her and not her own. It's hard as a teen when you have to start re-evaluating and restructuring your relationship with your parents, not to mention your own relative unimportance in the wider world, and Forman covers it well.
Like Maureen Johnson's Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes (which is the most obvious comp), though, there's a metaphorical journey tied up in Allyson's physical journey back to Europe, and by the end of the book, she is able to definitely say that Shakespeare got it slightly wrong: it's how to be, not whether to be, that is the real question. The other major comp to this book is The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight for its exploration of first love and whether it's even possible after a single chance encounter. This book doesn't blaze new paths, to be sure, but it covers old ground in a sweet and eminently readable way.
I apparently read through this book so quickly that I dogeared hardly any pages. Here's a passage that I did make note of, the first description of D'Angelo : "He's one of two African American students in the room, though he's the only one sporting a huge halo of an afro covered in bejeweled barrettes, and bubble-gum-pink gloss on his lips. Otherwise, he's dressed like a soccer mom, in sweats and pink Uggs. In a field of carefully cultivated weirdness, he's a wildflower (197)."
NB: I read an Advance Reading Copy of this book that I got from our sales rep and it will be published by Dutton in January 2013. The sequel, told from Willem's point of view, is slated for sometime in the fall of 2013.