In her debut novel, Zoey Leigh Peterson — whose short fiction has appeared in Best Canadian Stories and The Journey Prize Stories anthologies — delivers an intimate and funny portrait of messy polyamory. Expertly crisp writing and nuanced protagonists make for a reading experience that is equally entertaining and thought-provoking.
Chris and Kathryn are sweet 30-somethings who have lived together for nine years and have what everyone around them describes as an enviable, almost perfect relationship. They are so comfortable and secure with each other, they even admit their crushes. One day, Kathryn tells Chris to ask out one such crush, a young free spirit named Emily who works odd jobs and lives in the kind of communal house that comes complete with a chore wheel. Chris does approach Emily, the two begin going out, and Chris’s formerly “perfect” life with Kathryn rapidly starts to change.
Pleasantly, the change is unpredictable. Old relationships falter while new ones mushroom, but none of it relates to any standard tale of infidelity or marital wrongdoing. Jealousy and betrayed feelings arise, but Kathryn does not descend into irretrievable despair, nor does Chris’s relationship with Emily pinwheel into the expected duality of ecstacy and guilt.
Peterson’s concerns in Next Year, For Sure lie more in the realm of excavating what Chris and Kathryn actually need from others – friends and lovers both. “What she secretly wanted,” Kathryn thinks of a couple she and Chris are old friends with, “was for the four of them to be married somehow.… [Not] where you’re in each other’s beds, but the promise, that explicit understanding, that [they] were bound to each other, the four of them, for life.”
The narration shifts fluidly between Chris and Kathyrn; their psychological development is rendered both smooth and surprising thanks to sharp prose and a number of plot turns the reader rarely sees coming. Secondary characters are numerous and hard to keep track of, but always consistent and fun – Emily’s aforementioned living arrangements providing a lot of the book’s mirth and warmth.
The core of the novel’s strength lies in a deeply intelligent understanding of what repels and draws people to each other. Next Year, For Sure does not attempt praise or indictment of any particular kind of romantic relationship. Instead, it gently offers hard questions as to the different needs of good-hearted humans. In this, Emily proves to be the book’s only flaw: while acting as both inciting figure and consistent bringer of joie de vivre, her inner life is shrouded compared to the in-depth portraits of Chris and Kathryn. Even some secondary characters eclipse Emily in complexity.
This is a relatively small quibble; overall, the book succeeds in its empathetic perception and pleasurable writing. A smart literary love story that doesn’t depress or bleaken the soul is a welcome rarity indeed.