Next Year For Sure by Zoey Leigh Peterson was one of those books that I devoured, unwilling to leave the world of the novel for the “real” one unless I absolutely had to, and resentful at the daily existence of life like making food and going to work that interrupted my ability to read non-stop. For that, and that alone even though this novel has many other great qualities, I have to give debut novelist Zoey Leigh Peterson mad props. It’s been a while since a book has really made me feel that way, and I like to think I read a lot of really great books. (Plus, look at that fucking gorgeous cover, featuring a painting by Jarek Puczel. It’s definitely my favourite cover this year so far).
A bit about Zoey Leigh Peterson: I somehow had never heard of her before the publisher offered me a review copy of this book, which I’m so thankful for since I’m not sure Next Year For Sure would have been on my radar otherwise, even though Peterson is a Vancouver-based trans writer and librarian! Although this is her first novel, she’s already quite an accomplished fiction writer, having published stories in journals and magazines like The Walrus, EVENT, Grain, and PRISM international. She’s even been anthologized in Best Canadian Short Stories and has won a few fiction awards! The reason I think I likely might not have heard of Next Year For Sure is that the queer content is pretty minimal (although I have a theory about one character maybe being ace spectrum that is not explicit at all) and there aren’t any trans characters.
Funnily enough, this book reminded me that hey, I actually DO enjoy books about straight cis people sometimes (haha). But the fact that there are no trans characters brings up an interesting point: what does it mean for trans writers to not write about trans characters? Are they expected to? Who expects them to? Should they? Do they have a responsibility to? What factors are in play when a trans author decides to write a book without trans characters? I mean, the ciscentric and cisnormative state of publishing and why presses like Topside exist is that mainstream publishing is only interesting in publishing a very specific kind of trans narrative about being “trapped in the wrong body” and transition intended for a voyeuristic cis audience. Not saying that this is the case for Zoey Leigh Peterson, but I can see how trans authors who want to tell other stories would feel pressured to make their characters cis because the mainstream publishing industry thinks that those stories couldn’t possibly belong to trans people (real and fictional). Some folks forget this, but even people who do art for work gotta make money.
Anyway, onto the actual book, not what might have been (although I’ll get back to that at the end of this review actually). First off, I loved Next Year For Sure. It’s been a few weeks since I finished it, but the characters are still hanging out in my mind and I’m still thinking about them. If you like character-driven books that make you think (I know I do), then this is the novel for you. It’s also the kind of book that make you pause as you’re reading, stare off into space, say hmm, and reflect on your own life.
Next Year For Sure is about a long-term (cis straight) couple named Kathryn and Chris in their early thirties. They’ve been together for nine years and are the kind of couple others envy: they’re endlessly supportive of each other, they anticipate each other’s needs, they have their own little shorthand language, they complete each other’s sentences, they have lots of shared interests, they take showers together. But something isn’t right, in both their relationship with each other and in their own senses of self. This is really a luminous, complex look into an intimate, romantic relationship.
Kathryn and Chris hit a turning point in the stasis of their relationship when Chris tells Kathryn about this crush he has on a woman he sees at the laundromat. Them telling each other about little crushes they have on other people is not new, but Kathryn deciding to encourage Chris to ask this woman Emily out on a date is. They don’t intentionally set new boundaries for their relationship, but more kind of stumble into polyamory while trying to figure out what it is that they are both missing. Chris’s developing relationship with Emily leads them to become kind of a part of her big communal household, opening up even more possibilities.
In a statement from Peterson that I got with my review copy of the book, she says
A lot of people ask me why I wanted to write a novel about polyamory. The answer is I didn’t. I wanted to write about loneliness. I wanted to write about the loneliness I saw and felt in even the happiest of couples—couples where you couldn’t imagine a better, more loving, more compatible pairing, and yet there was a shared loneliness. I wanted to write about the loneliness of adulthood, when friends start disappearing into their careers or families. I wanted to write about the loneliness of ending a friendship that has become unhealthy, but then finding yourself bereft and broken in its absence.
Well, I couldn’t put what Next Year For Sure is about any better than that. It’s not that it’s only about loneliness, but it is a feeling that permeates the book. Like the title implies, there’s this overwhelming sense that something isn’t right but the solution is out of reach, something vaguely and indefinitely postponed, because you’re not really sure what that solution might be. I want to reassure readers that the fact that this book is about loneliness does not by any means make it sad, although it is thoughtful in a lovely way.
Next Year For Sure is full of authentic, nuanced, flawed characters, richly drawn with compassion and generosity. This is not only true for Kathryn and Chris, but also all the other side characters: Sharon, Kathryn’s old grad school friend that she’s slowly growing apart from; Emily, Chris’s new easy-going, vivacious girlfriend; and all the other members of Emily’s household. This is truly a gift for people like me who read for character above all else, who can tolerate a book failing in almost any other way as long as the characters are complex and real.
There’s a part early on in the novel when one of Chris’s ex-girlfriends tells him that “part of being in love with someone is not falling in love with someone else.” Perplexed at the time this was said to him, in the present of the novel Chris is finally about to actually explore how that isn’t true for him. He might appear to be a serial monogamist, but what would happen if he didn’t have to end one relationship to begin another? This is essentially the experiment of the novel, and what leads to Kathryn also dating people other than Chris. Later on, trying to navigate these different relationships, Chris thinks
This little word, in, makes Chris wild. It has never made sense to him, this love-but-not-in-love thing that people have been saying his whole life, like it’s a fact we all agree on, like it’s the difference between a liquid and a solid and a gas and no one has ever heard of plasma.
One last thing I haven’t mentioned yet that I also loved about this book was the Vancouver setting; actually I don’t remember if the novel ever specified it was Vancouver in name, although I think a few street names are mentioned. But the types of characters, the stuff they do, the descriptions of biking around the city and eating Asian and hippie food and going camping on the Gulf Islands and the rain were all so lovingly and authentically crafted. Speaking of craft, Next Year For Sure is also stunningly written, and full of beautifully understated turns of phrase that reveal so many simple truths about the characters and life, as her writing also continually propels the quiet narrative forward.
Thinking back to what I was writing at the beginning of this review about trans authors writing (and not writing) trans characters. How would this novel be different if one or both of the main characters were trans? How, if in any way, would that change this story? When I really sat and thought about it, I actually decided it would significantly change the course of the book. A lot of the struggles Kathryn and Chris have is wanting a different relationship model than the cis hetero norm. Their friends Sharon and Kyle are the archetype of people following this paradigm—moving outside of the city core, buying a condo, getting married—and Kathryn seems to think her old friend Sharon is changing for the worse, is not actually happy, and has chosen a partner who isn’t good for her.
Queer and trans people have already transgressed these norms with their very being, so—in an obvious oversimplification—in general are less attached to those norms and bogged down by those expectations. They’re also often in (queer and/or trans) communities that readily support doing relationships differently. Like, I can’t imagine any of my friends having the visceral, supremely unsupportive, and patronizing attitude that some of the characters in this book have about Kathryn and Chris opening up their relationship. Some of my friends are poly. So I guess what I’m saying is that if this was the story Zoey Leigh Peterson wanted to tell, it might have actually not worked if one or both of the main characters were trans and/or queer. How interesting is that…
How can we be happy? How do we find out what makes us happy? How can we build the best relationships with other people? And how do we do all these things in the face of dominant narratives that tell us what we should be doing but don’t offer room for us to figure out what we actually want? Next Year For Sure sure isn’t going to give you answers, but it might help you know yourself better so you can find them on your own.
Bonus! Did you enjoy this review or find it useful? Consider supporting me on the Patreon for Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian that I launched last month! Patreon is a site where creators of all sorts of things can make some money via subscription payments from their readers/etc. It can be as little as a dollar a month! Help me continue to be able to devote time to this site and you can win stuff like queer books and postcards with personalized book recommendations! Click on the link for more details and to sign up. I’m currently at $61 a month, working towards my next goal of $75!
Bonus number 2! I would love to talk to someone who is polyamorous about Next Year For Sure because I have a lot of itching questions about how the book deals with this theme that I want to discuss but I don’t want to spoil things for people who haven’t read the book. So if you don’t want to know about the end of Kathryn and Chris’s relationship journey, stop reading now!
So, at the end of the novel Kathryn and Chris break up. It’s not that I’m disappointed that they break up, per se. It’s not like this book gives you the impression that it’s a happily ever after kind of story. But my question is that because Kathryn and Chris break up after both dating people other than each other—Chris forming a relationship with Emily and Kathryn forming one with Moss, one of Emily’s roommates—in some ways it feels like the novel represents opening up your relationship as a stepping stone to ending your relationship. If there were other poly relationships in the book, I don’t think this would be a problem. However, because there aren’t, it does feel like it misrepresents how polyamory can be a fulfilling and really positive move for certain relationships, even ones that didn’t start that way. At the close of the novel, I had the feeling that Kathryn and Chris exploring polyamory and wanting to date other people was merely a symptom of their relationship not working for them anymore and not something that people in a relationship that is working could do to make the relationship work even better.
This is the point that has been niggling me most since I finished the book. For a novel that in many ways is largely about polyamory, the ending doesn’t actually show any kind of functioning polyamory. There’s a restructuring of relationships, but no one is romatically or sexually involved with more than one person. Kathryn, who’s the instigator of the break up, is really happy with the new life she’s created for herself living in the communal house with Emily and Moss. She clearly realized the insular couple life she and Chris had been living was not working for her, perhaps had never worked for her, and so she rightly makes a decision to change that. But Chris is left in the lurch and is kind of worse off than he was at the beginning. He’s an introvert who knows the communal lifestyle of that house would not work for him. It seems like he’s the kind of guy who needs someone to be his main person, but in the end neither Emily nor Kathryn can be that for him, even though he is still dating Emily at the end. So was polyamory actually not for him, or does he just need a primary partner? Is he maybe on the asexual spectrum, like grey-ace but hasn’t figured it out yet? I have so many questions and I feel like this fictional person Chris who I identify with cause I’m also an introvert does too.