There’s no better novel to read in the middle of winter than one in which gloom transforms itself into an emotional Spring. Guadalupe Nettel’s After the Winter cuts through the fog by splitting her narrative into intimate, alternating perspectives which cross paths as the novel progresses.
After the Winter
Coffee House Press (2018)
At the start of the story loneliness and inertia hover over the lives of Nettel’s central characters, Claudio and Cecilia, eventually driving them into one another’s arms and back out again as they search for a cure to their individual pain. Through their journeys across cities and countries into one another’s lives, Nettel is less interested in writing Claudio and Cecilia’s endearing love story than she is with the neurotic, isolative tendencies that bring them together for good or for ill, and what we glean from relationships that don’t last.
From the beginning, Nettel’s characters are incongruous lovers. We hear first from Claudio, who is ascetic in the extreme; he is determined to regiment his home, work, and relationships until they work perfectly in step with his view of himself, which is, at least to the reader, comically overinflated. He has such high standards that even though he has a girlfriend who slavishly caters to his appetites of every stripe, he finds himself fantasizing about a perfect woman who he can really fall in love with, one he can happily pull up onto the pedestal where he has so firmly cemented himself.
Cecelia diametrically opposes him in her attitude; full of dreams and almost categorically purposeless, she finds herself moving from Mexico to Paris on a scholarship and passes her days in an immigrant’s isolation until she is befriended by another student and then her next-door neighbor, whose lives she happily uses as templates for her own as long as the relationships last.
Whether out of deliberation or cluelessness, both characters are able to observe the people around them but not understand them, and Nettel is obsessed with this impenetrable wall. When Claudio’s mistress becomes distraught after she loses access to her anxiety medication, he is horrified with her lack of composure. Rather than aiding her in any way, he rejects her until she returns to her state of placidity where he can take advantage of her however he wishes. Even Cecilia, who tends to be more compassionate, never feels completely connected to her lover and often goes through his apartment while he is away because she can’t reconcile the man he was before he met her with the one who loves her now.
Despite our best efforts to have the world parsed out tidy and neat, the messiness of existence offers unremitting opportunities to connect and begin again
It comes as no surprise that when Claudio and Cecilia finally meet their romance is fleeting. Claudio projects his fantasies onto Cecilia’s silence, making her the dream woman he was destined to have, while Cecilia secretly finds his controlling behavior boring and offensive enough to drive her away after one visit to see him in New York. Seeking the fulfillment of their delusions in the other only leaves them lonelier than before.
While Nettel could have left these characters to befuddle their way through life caught up in their own blindness and rigidity, she pushes them both into traumatic experiences that transform and reveal them, so dramatically altering them by the end of the book that the frustrations you feel with the characters at the start become a tentative hope for their future by the last page.
Claudio, forced to confront his punctured illusions after the breakup with Cecilia, deals with his trauma from a past romantic relationship which ended in suicide and learns to accept the help of the only woman who has stayed constant in his life as he recuperates from an injury. Cecelia begins caring for her neighbor during the last few months of his terminal illness, and when confronted with his death and her lack of meaning without him, is forced to reconstitute her entire existence and pull herself from depression through the care of friends she had almost forgotten.
Though it is rife with all manner of internal agony and doubting, After the Winter confronts the mystical founts of modern malaise and remedies them with authentic connection. Rather than letting her characters remain preoccupied with death and the many ways in which they remain separate from one another, Nettel allows Claudio and Cecelia to be saved by the people around them, even when, or perhaps precisely because, they do not deserve it.
By the end of the story, Claudio and Cecilia are not drastically different people. This is not a redemptive novel of the Les Mis streak in which the characters’ darknesses have come completely to light, and I appreciated that Nettel doesn’t make salvation easy for them. They have grown wiser and seen the benefits of genuine relationship, but they retain their original quirks and plotlines, leaving the book with a dangling ending and the sense that there are more days ahead for Claudio and Cecilia, separate though they may be.
And perhaps that is the ultimate point: despite our best efforts to have the world parsed out tidy and neat, the messiness of existence offers unremitting opportunities to connect and begin again, regardless of what’s behind us.
Kelsey Capps is a writer and Reader in Residence at The Wild Detectives. Her short stories and reviews have been mentioned in a variety of publications including Hobo Pancakes, Literary Hub, and The Guardian, and she is finishing her second novel. You can follow her work and current reads on Instagram at @readwritethecraft.