Review: 'The Wintering' by Joan Williams

Everyone who runs a blog reviewing books has had their life changed by an author and their writing. I remember meeting Carlos Ruiz Zafon at a reading in London years ago and even though I was burning with questions I could hardly lift my eyes to properly look at him. I was utterly entranced and utterly petrified all at once. I remembered that experience, utterly innocent, now, as I read Joan Williams' The Wintering. Thanks to Open Road Integrated Media and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. My sincerest apologies for the delay in reviewing.

Pub. Date: 21/30/2014
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media

This poignant tale of a young woman’s affair with a famous writer is based on Joan Williams’s real-life relationship with William Faulkner

For Amy Howard, the novels of Jeffrey Almoner are a refuge from the uncertainty of life. His books are full of the questions—about the nature of justice, the necessity of suffering, and the meaning of the past—that occupy her thoughts, but that no else seems interested in asking or able to answer. When she and two friends make a pilgrimage to Almoner’s house, she expects the world-famous author to be tall, dark, and mysterious, and to find in him the mirror to her soul. Instead, the encounter is too brief and awkward for Amy to even introduce herself.

Back at home, she pours out everything she had hoped to say in a letter, sharing with Almoner her belief that, despite the difference in their ages, they are spiritually connected. His surprisingly personal response marks the beginning of an intense relationship that soon progresses from epistolary flirtation to secret meetings in Mississippi bus stations, fancy Memphis hotels, and New York publishing houses. For the married Almoner, Amy’s youthful beauty and devotion are irresistible. For Amy, the great artist is a source of wisdom and experience whose support gives her the courage to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. As their love affair moves from its exhilarating beginning to its inevitable, heartrending conclusion, Amy discovers that finding the answers to her questions will be more painful than she ever thought possible.

The Wintering is a bittersweet coming-of-age story, an exquisite account of a beautiful yet fleeting romance, and one of the most intimate portraits of William Faulkner ever written. Included in this ebook is “Twenty Will Not Come Again,” Joan Williams’s honest and revealing essay, first published in the Atlantic Monthly, on the subject of her relationship with one of the twentieth century’s greatest artists.

I started reading this novel years ago, when I was roughly the same age as Amy, the novel's main character. I think I was too close to it then, in a way I only now recognise, and therefore I drifted away from it. Reading it properly now, years later (apologies to Open Road Integrated Media...), I had a whole new point of access to the story the novel was telling. I am still struggling with this novel's blurb and with its set-up as the story of an "affair" or a "relationship", when I feel like what is being described is so much more complex. The Wintering is a story about a young girl coming of age, a story about a girl trying to escape social conventions, a story of the American South, a story of womanhood and its disappointments, a story of art and creativity, a story of searching and not finding, and, on top of that, a story about different kinds of love. I'd hate to see it reduced to something that may seem mere scandal and sensationalism, rather than an exploration of all these things and more. I wouldn't have recognised all these layers ten years ago, and I'm sure if I were to reread it at the age of Almoner, I would again see it differently. This review is in a large part me working out my conflicting feelings over the novel, which I on the one hand want to praise and which, on the other hand, gave me an immediate gut feeling of 'oh no'.

Amy adores the work of the great Almoner, who she doesn't think gets enough recognition. When a sneaky visit to his house ends in a disappointing first meeting, she pours her adoration into a letter and, to her surprise, receives a response. So starts a correspondence from which both gain something and both also lose something. Amy, sheltered "girl on the edge of womanhood" that she is, does not recognise the pitfalls and dangers of this communication, but Almoner does. While he is revived and writing again, he is aware of what he wants and that Amy might be unable to provide that. Through Almoner, Amy is confronted with various realities, with her own impact upon others, with the ways in which she has been coddled and the ways in which she has been forced into things. He opens up her world and has an impact upon her, and many of these elements of the novel are taken from Williams' own experiences, explained in the article "Twenty Will Not Come Again", which is added to this edition. While The Wintering mostly follows Amy, we also get narration from Almoner , his wife, Amy's mother, Amy's aunt, and Almoner's Black maid, as well as insights into other characters. This makes The Wintering a very layered and sometimes complex novel, because so much of it is not about the relationship between Amy and Almoner. It is also a description of its time, of the South, of the role of woman, of class, and so much more. 

As a 21st-century reader I almost cannot help but raise an immediate red flag at the premise of the novel. While the risqué and slightly dodgy aspects of it initially attracted me all those years back, they now seemed dangerous and misguided. But since this was Joan Williams' reflections upon her own personal experiences with William Faulkner, I felt I could not judge till I read it and tried to see it through her eyes. For Amy, meeting Almoner becomes a gateway into figuring herself out. What struck me most was just how young Amy is at the beginning of the novel. I don't mean young in years per se, as she is 21, but young mentally. It reminded me of how I, when I was 21, also thought I knew everything, had lived a life already, and believed that I had genuine deep insight into the world. And I was just as young, unsure, naïve, and desperate as Amy. What Williams absolutely nails is that crushing sense of "now what" when you enter new adulthood. Where is all that promise and excitement I saw in my future? Who am I? Why am I so sad/stressed/exhausted/delighted/depressed all the time? Was this it? When will life really begin? I absolutely was guided by adults during this time, as well as by my own peer-group, and these influences shaped me into the adult I am today. What made me feel icky about the Amy/Almoner situation was that perceived and real power imbalance between the two, the one filled with admiration and respect and the other with a love even he knows won't work. Weirdly enough I kept waiting for the worst to happen, for Almoner to go too far, for Amy to end up broken. The Wintering is not that novel. Williams is incredibly insightful in how she writes about the relationship between the two, how the power between them shifts, how they both support and injure each other. She doesn't shy away from the complexity of it, even when sometimes it almost felt too emotionally intimate or awkward to read. As I said above, I'm still sorting out my feelings on this novel, but what I can absolutely say is that Joan Williams draws a very nuanced portrait of both Amy and Almoner which belies easy characterisations of "victim/perpetrator", "vixen/lecher", etc.

It helps that Joan Williams is a great writer. Her Mississippi came alive for me in a way I didn't expect, as did Amy's sojourn in New York. From the stifling heat, to the gentle pressure of Southern gentility, to the freedom of the outdoors, Williams writes it all into visceral reality. There are so many small details which fill the novel that it feels incredibly lived in. I also enjoyed how Williams set up the contrasting experiences and lives of her characters, specifically when it laid bare issues of class and race. The Wintering is, however, a long novel, which at times felt like it dragged. There is a lot of back and forth on how and where Amy and Almoner will meet, which kind of slows down the momentum a little, even if it is important for Amy's development. A lot of the details, which I did adore, also give it a bit of an external sheen which then seems to reveal a blank underneath. I think this is on purpose though. Amy's life is full of nice things, but there is a void in her she doesn't know how to fill. Her drifting around aimlessly is the point, but I can imagine that for some readers it can be off-putting. As a roman a clef, or "novel with a key", The Wintering asks you to cross the line from the novel's fiction into Williams' reality in order to find meaning. This undoes some of the novel's potential for me, as I kept wondering about Williams' reality rather than enjoying her writing, if that makes sense. But, overall, I did find myself gripped, confused, intrigued, and affected by The Wintering. 

A small trigger warning should perhaps be attached to this novel. Set in the South, it does deal with racism and some comments made by characters, including using the N-word, may be difficult or upsetting to readers.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

The Wintering is a complex and multi-layered novel about a young woman and her complicated relationship to an older author, based on Williams' own real-life experiences. This novel will not give you a passionate love affair, but it also won't give you a straightforward villain's tale. Rather, it is a depiction of the complicated and muddled thing that is growing up and life.


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