A synopsis can tell you most of what you already know about Next Year, For Sure, Zoey Leigh Peterson’s debut novel: Chris and Kathryn have been together happily for nine years when they decide to try opening up the relationship. He has a habit of falling in love and a “high cuddle drive,” while “nothing invigorates Kathryn like a good crush.” This good crush comes along in the form of Emily, an outgoing odd-jobber who lives in a house full of eccentrics. Chris pursues Emily with Kathryn’s blessing, and together all three—and later a fourth—sort out feelings of belonging and jealousy, intimacy and isolation. All of this happens in what I took to be a perfectly Vancouver setting: they cycle rather than drive, go camping and kayaking, and walk through the city in the rain. Chris and Kathryn have quiet jobs, and their experiment in living comes with thoughtful caring rather than spiteful betrayal. They move around in a quiet melancholy rather than a high drama.
None of this accounts for the way the novel pulled me in nor for the grip it had on me. I finished reading sorry it was over—not unsatisfied but unhappily yanked away from my immersion in their world. Next Year, For Sure has that rare je ne sais quoi, that inexplicable allure also familiar to us in an intense crush. If we’re lucky, we’ll feel lovesick at least once in our lives, made desperate by the proximity of a particular person, as Chris is by Emily: “Whenever he talks to her he comes away feeling hollowed out and nauseous like after swimming too long in a chlorinated pool.” He wants to share her life just as he shares his life with Kathryn. This is more than sex and more than friendship. What Peterson has done with this gorgeous novel is not to expose the titillating qualities of a polyamorous relationship, but to inquire deeply and truthfully into the nature of romantic love.
Much of the allure, in both love and reading, is in the details. Peterson’s world is populated by characters who are recognizable even when they are strange. I am convinced that these characters could be walking Vancouver from used bookstore to used bookstore, cycling home bursting with stories, or sharing meals with a big motley group of housemates. One chapter takes place in a mattress store, while another is structured around a camping trip. In a kayak, Chris notices that “across the back of [Kathryn’s] life jacket is stenciled the world MEDIUM. He thinks: Medium. Seer. Soothsayer. They turn back, unsure how far they’ve gone. They take turns paddling, and sometimes let themselves float along.” Details like this are atmospheric and revelatory, the prose gliding along and then opening into an understated metaphor. At an Indonesian restaurant he shares a bond with an old woman who fills water glasses: “later he began to surprise her with diligently-practised phrases in Indonesian. Thank you. You are very kind. I always feel thirst.” I always feel thirst!
In one of my favourite sections, Kathryn cleans the house Emily usually cleans as one of her odd jobs. The homeowner is depressed, and maybe so is Kathryn. She treats the house lovingly and with invisible care, cleaning things long left grimy. She watches The Biggest Loser in the woman’s living room, thinking about how easy it is to accomplish goals when you know what the goal is:
You break it down, you make a plan. So manageable, so quantifiable. But it all starts with: There’s this thing you want.
What if there isn’t this thing you want?
It occurs to Kathryn that not wanting things is a goal she has been working toward all her life. Now, though, she badly wants to want something.
Most plots are said to be driven by thwarted desire. Usually protagonists badly want something they cannot get. Next Year, For Sure isn’t driven this way. It occurred to me that goal-oriented desire is the kind of desire that produces monogamy and then adultery, whereas a person who is more or less happy in their relationship (sad, yes, but not because of the relationship, and not too sad) might suffer from other kinds of desire. Goal-oriented and thwarted desire might be the sort of desire that leads to plot-driven stories, as well. In both this novel and its desires, people are driven by more than a single goal.
To deal with her jealousy, Kathryn “map[s] that part of herself—honing in on that grasping, malignant part. She will find exactly where it is. Then she will cut it out by the roots. She knows how.” Chris, though, thinks she’s paving over her feelings. We know that before Chris she had been in an abusive relationship where she could not see the abuse, and so her choices are as worrisomely complex as though they were happening to our friends. Indeed, the couple loses friends over this experiment, and their happy lives cannot go on exactly as before. Should a person have everything they want? Can they? In the novel’s epigraph, Annie Dillard’s found poem “Signals at Sea” is quoted in full, and these worries are eerily and gorgeously highlighted. “Stop carrying out your intentions,” the poem warns us.
Accounts of polyamorous lives have been everywhere lately, at least in my circles. I hear anecdotes and podcasts, read memoirs and articles, wonder about rumors and strategies. My irritation with most of these accounts is that polyamory sounds just like monogamy: filled with rules and limits, less romantic than logistical. But if it isn’t about romance, what’s it for? Peterson’s novel beautifully depicts these characters as people with lives, not lifestyles. Committed people do sometimes fall in love with other people, and this isn’t a symptom of a bad relationship or of a broken person.
Next Year, For Sure had me wondering over two questions: not only “What do we want from our partners?” But also “What do we want from a novel?” Kathryn walks through the city late at night “to watch people make choices, to see how people lived.” In one passage characters spend a while trying to find a particular book—by, as it happens, Annie Dillard—to find the line that describes something so perfectly. And so, this, this is what I want from a novel. To watch people make choices, to see how they live, to find a line that perfectly describes some single thing, art so like life that I want to imitate it in my life and in my art.
Peterson’s stories have been published in major Canadian literary journals, won fiction prizes, and have been featured in Best Canadian Stories and The Journey Prize Stories. Next Year, For Sure felt peculiarly Canadian in setting and also in style, with its careful realism and its Alice Munro concerns. The novel’s style and the way the characters interact with their urban landscape doesn’t feel urban, but a little wild. The novel’s interest in ways of loving gives it kinship with early Barbara Gowdy—though it isn’t as dark as Gowdy or Munro—and with a recent non-fiction title (What Love Is) by UBC philosophy professor Carrie Jenkins, who is living polyamorously. Peterson belongs to a cohort of young Canadian short story writers like Eliza Robertson, Kevin Hardcastle and Kris Bertin, with her eye for sharp detail and her short story-writer’s care for the image and the sentence. Peterson has created a novel from these story-writing gifts without abandoning them or becoming overly dependent on them. But by now, I guess it’s clear I’m smitten. If there are flaws in Next Year For Sure, I am too love-blind to see them.
Doubleday Canada | 258 pages | $24.95 | paper | ISBN# 9780385686778