Book #44: Something Like Winter (2012)

20131116-111222.jpgauthor: Jay Bell
language: English and some Spanish
length: 374 pages
finished reading on: 9 November 2013

Having finished Jay Bell’s previous book Something Like Summer, I proceeded pretty much immediately to download the next book in the series. Summer was only out in audio format because it was only so popular, so I had to say goodbye to the vocals and acting and return to ebook format for Something Like Winter (the physical copy was about four times more expensive and would have taken a week to arrive).

Bell was reluctant to write a sequel because, in his words, “happy couples are boring” (to which I reply, not necessarily, you just need to find other sources of conflict, or tell a story that includes them but isn’t about them, perhaps), but because Summer was popular, he eventually came up with a compromise solution: Winter is actually a companion novel to Summer and not a sequel. It tells the same events, but from the perspective of Tim rather than Ben. Thus, the story is roughly familiar, but the events and thoughts of each character are not.

In many ways, Tim’s story is more interesting than Ben’s. His character has a more apparent central conflict (although in the end it comes back to coming out, which I noted previously is often trite and frequently not done well), and many of the people he meets over the course of his story – some hinted at or shown in Ben’s story, but here fleshed out more completely – and many of the events too, are ultimately more original and intriguing.

Bell seems to take the opportunity to right some of the stylistic mistakes and plotholes he made when writing Summer, and presumably because it was written over a year later, and I think with a couple more novels under his belt, it’s a better novel than the first overall for that reason. Sometimes he even seems to reach into the future and read my review that I made last week of Summer and correct his sequel/whatever accordingly, although this may just mean that any criticisms I had of the book are not original. For instance, sometimes they mention issues such as the legality of gay marriage and a veiled reference to the AIDS epidemic.

Tim in this book obviously comes across as a lot more sympathetic. In the previous book, he was mostly an object of desire who was difficult to read, and the story mostly displayed his bad side, perhaps because as Bell later said, happy couples aren’t interesting, and the story needs to keep some kind of conflict going. Here we see Tim’s better side, and see his motivations, as if to atone for how unsympathetic he came across before.

Many of the scenes in the book display traits of the unreliable narrator, both of Tim and Ben. Sometimes, important scenes from Summer are glossed over or deleted entirely; sometimes, new scenes are introduced which were important to Tim but apparently not to Ben. These kinds of scenes were probably the most interesting for me – I feel like it might be even more interesting if I could compare one directly to the other, as there were many times when I read something that looked familiar-but-not-quite, and I wanted to go back and compare to the scene from Summer to see what was new about that particular scene. But scrolling through an audiobook to find a specific place is not so easy.

However, just as interesting were the sections of the book where Ben’s and Tim’s stories diverge – here we get to see what happened to Tim in the meantime, events that were only hinted at before. He shares a platonic bond with an elderly gay man called Eric, whose estate Tim inherits after he dies, and who helps him come out of the closet. This relationship was mentioned but not explored properly. We also get to meet Eric’s friends, including a rather callous and unscrupulous man called Marcello who is easily the best character, who later becomes Tim’s confidante.

The book is also more emotionally gripping and galling than its predecessor, I thought, especially because it starts dealing with death and loss quite early on in comparison. Ultimately this was a good thing, although it did make it harder to read at times.

I liked it overall, then, but as I expected, the book had its share of problems. One was the way Marcello was constantly described as being disgusting for being fat – I get that it’s from Tim’s perspective and he’s very shallow, but I could have done without that, thanks.

Another was that despite efforts for Tim to stress how death is never convenient, having been through the experience himself, the death of Ben’s husband Jace near the end of the book is still difficult to justify narratively. The ending isn’t as rushed as the previous book, though, and I suppose this can act as a kind of redemption.

The other main problem I found is that for a lot of the book, Tim is a spoiled rich boy, especially when he unexpectedly comes into money in the second half of the book. Spoiled is perhaps the wrong word, as he has had to deal with loss a lot more than other characters like Ben, and he doesn’t know what to do with his life, but the sheer amount of money that he had for much of the book made it difficult for me to empathize with him. It was nice to make a change from the penny-pinching story of Ben and Jace’s life, and perhaps it just falls into the category of wish fulfillment, as I suspected Ben and Tim’s relationship was in the first place in Summer, but I guess if Bell finds stories about happy couples boring, then I find stories about rich people boring. Oh well.

Something Like Winter is good, and I liked it and would recommend it whole-heartedly, but it should be read after Something Like Summer. I suppose it would be possible to read them backwards, as they’re ultimately telling the same story, and the various twists and turns for one will necessarily be spoiled by the other, but this way round works better, I think, as the story did sometimes gloss over important narrative details that one could be assumed to already know. So if you’re into gay novels, definitely go for it.

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