Next Year, For Sure
By Zoey Leigh Peterson
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
I admit, I thought I was in for trouble when reading the first chapter of short-story veteran Zoey Leigh Peterson's debut novel, Next Year, For Sure, as we get introduced to a cutesy-wootsy-patoosie perfect little twentysomething hipster couple, and witness the cutesy-wootsy-patoosie perfect little twentysomething hipster things that constitute their relationship; but then in the very next chapter we get a complicated blow-by-blow look at the boyfriend's checkered dating history, why all his relationships have ended with the women in his life despising him, and why this genial, shy young man with intimacy issues can't understand why all his ex-girlfriends end up despising him, and I suddenly realized, "Oh, okay, there's actually something really special going on here in this book, I get it now."
That special something turns out to be an extra probing, extra complex character study of two noble yet deeply flawed human beings, as they accidentally stumble ass-backwards into the perpetual minefield known as polyamory and open relationships, an Olympic-pool-deep dive into what motivates these two engaging yet terrible yet engaging yet terrible people into getting in the kind of emotionally tangled mess they end up finding themselves in by the halfway point of this book. Set in an unnamed hippie-friendly town but one that clearly feels like a Pacific Northwest destination like Portland, the clear standout in this relationship is actually the woman Kathryn, a former childhood member of a religious cult who is now a fairly normal grown-up but prone to occasional bizarre, self-destructive behavior; she's been in a seemingly perfect if not boring-as-hell relationship for nine years now with the meek, genteel, sexually confused Chris, one based on such a bedrock of honesty that one of their favorite activities is admitting to each other when they get a crush on someone else. But when one of these crushes on the part of Chris turns into a more ongoing fascination he's finding hard to let go of, Kathryn for some reason encourages him to actually ask her out on a date and then go out on that date; and essentially the rest of the book is a powerful and poetic look at why she would do such a thing and what the fallout of that date is, a story that sometimes goes in expected directions but often in unexpected ones, and certainly with the main point being to get a deep inside-out look at the people involved and what makes them tick, and not necessarily for the slow-moving plot or to make a moral pronouncement either pro or con about the subject of polyamory itself (sorry, poly fans who were hoping this book would be a manifesto for your lifestyle).
As a guy who loves dense character studies but who rarely comes across books of that type that are truly impressive, this book was addictive like crack for me, which is why I'm giving it a nearly perfect score for readers like me who are into this kind of delicately stylish writing; but I'm also the first to admit that this isn't nearly going to be everyone's cup of tea (in fact, I suspect this book will garner as much intense hatred as it does intense love), which is why I'm giving it an only okay score for general audience members. (Also, by making the main villain of this book Kathryn's former best friend, a bland suburban middle-class housewife who loves Matthew McConaughey movies and who reacts to the entire situation with, "That's gross and you're gross and this whole thing is gross," Peterson is by definition alienating the biggest single demographic of people who will be picking up this book in the first place [publisher Scribner is unwisely marketing this as a book for fans of rom-coms]; and I'm willing to bet money that six months from now, this book's Goodreads page is going to be filled with horrified rants from suburban middle-class housewives about how terrible and immoral all these people are, and how best friend Sharon was completely right and Kathryn was a fool not to listen to her.) Don't let this, though, stop you from taking a chance on this beautifully written, sometimes transgressively thought-provoking book, a nearly perfect debut that makes me excited to see what Peterson has in store for us next.
Out of 10: 8.9, or 9.9 for fans of deep character studies