The Next Together is Lauren James’ debut novel and my, oh my I LOVED it. Telling the stories of Katherine and Matthew as they live life after life together, it’s a real beauty inside and out. Walker books have done a spectacular job of designing this book and making it feel so special; with gorgeous maps, notes and letters, The Next Together feels like a vamped-up detective’s notebook crossed with a scrapbook of Matthew and Katherine’s lives!
There are three main settings used to tell their stories, England 2039; Carlisle 1745; and Crimea 1854. Katherine and Matthew appear in each time period, each time as different incarnations of themselves. Lauren says that these timelines were chosen ‘based on which I could research for free, mainly using my university library and primary sources available to access on Google Books. I was a student when I started writing as a hobby, so I didn’t want to spend any money on history textbooks.‘
In 2039, Matt and Kate are 18 year old biology students studying at the University of Nottingham and bonding over their shared interest in their relatives. Upon discovering that Kate’s aunt, Katherine, and Matt’s uncle, Matt, were killed by the government in 2019 for being terrorists, Kate and Matt set out to prove their relatives’ innocence.
The 1745 version of Katherine finds herself orphaned after her grandmother dies and she has to move in with her aunt and uncle. Katherine now lives in a castle, has servants, and travels in a horse drawn carriage – a life that without her grandma’s guidance feels overwhelming. Fed up by her aunt’s pushiness at a social gathering one evening, Katherine runs outside into the cold where she is brought a blanket by her coachman, Matthew. Over time, an unlikely friendship develops between them, and together they pledge to protect Carlisle from the Scottish Rebels.
Things are again completely different in 1854 when Katy is living life as a man servant to a journalist covering the Crimean war. After leaving the orphanage aged 12, Katy began living as a boy called Kit so that she could avoid the workhouse. Now 16 and working as a member of the house staff for army general, Lord Somerset, Katy is commissioned by her boss to spy on the journalist who is reporting the war for The Times, to make sure that only ‘safe’ information is making its way into the knowledge of the general public, and more importantly, the Russians. The journalist who she is to work with is 21 year old Matthew, a young writer hoping that by reporting the truth about the English army’s conditions, public support would increase and conditions on the front-line would improve.
I really love it when a book can’t be described in a single paragraph because it makes me feel that I’ve read something extra-special. The Next Together is such a brilliant book where every single word has been so carefully used to create the perfect storyline. With such an ambitious plot this potentially could have felt clumsy and confusing, but Lauren’s flawless attention to detail ensured that her book felt clever and exciting, so much so that I was captivated and interested the whole way through and not once did I feel bored nor did I flick ahead to see how many more pages I would have to endure. So much of the charm of The Next Together comes from Lauren’s ability to make you feel that you know Katherine and Matthew because even after just a couple of pages you’re rooting for them and are invested in their stories.
I asked Lauren if aspects of Kate and Matt were based on real people to which she replied, ‘I think both Kate and Matt are a little bit of me, but apart from just shamelessly stealing my own characteristics – Matt is based a little on Prince Char from Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. I absolutely adored that book when I was thirteen, and I would have taken a bullet for Char – and Matt! Kate is inspired by Jim Kirk as played by Chris Pine in the Star Trek reboot, because when I saw that film I was desperate for a silly, lewd, brave character like him – but who was a girl!‘
To accompany the three main stories, each chapter begins with a note left from either 2019 Katherine or 2019 Matt to the other. It’s an interesting addition because 2019 Matt and Katherine are the focus of 2039 Matt and Kate’s storyline and I liked how this intriguing technique was used to allow me to piece together the connections between both stories. I loved the mixture of notes pinned to the fridge, a written on napkin, text messages and letters, and think that Lauren deserves so much praise for so cleverly weaving together 4 individual stories about the same characters in such a magnificent and wonderfully easy to read way.
I also loved that certain themes connected one story to another as it really helped to tie it all together and portray the fact that it’s the same people in each story. In both 1745 and 1854 Katherine dresses as a male to enable her to do something heroic, and in all three stories her parents are absent. I also enjoyed the way that Lauren portrayed the power balance between Katherine and Matthew: in 1745, Matthew is in a more powerful position as a journalist, in 1854, Katherine is the most powerful as a Lady, and in 2019 and 2039, both are scientists and are on an even footing. Reading The Next Together reminded me a little bit of that episode in Friends (you know the one) when Monica and Chandler get together even when he’s a loser and she’s fat to prove that they were always destined to be together. I liked how Lauren explored the ideas of inevitability and destiny without the storyline ever feeling repetitive.
A few months ago when I saw this book referred to as a love story, I was a little worried that it would be a bit heavy and emotional but in fact it’s not like that at all! I particularly liked that both characters are light-hearted and jokey (and even a little sassy at times *looks at Katherine*) because it removed that sensation of prying that as a reader you can sometimes experience. Lauren says, ‘Their relationship is just based on what I imagine being in the perfect relationship with your soulmate would be like – when you both have your flaws and irritating traits, but those things fit together perfectly, and just make you love each other more.‘ Lauren managed to strike the perfect balance between not making me feel like I was third-wheeling Katherine and Matthew’s relationship but also still letting me get that lovely squishy feeling when they were being all cute and nice. For that reason I’d say this book is fab for those who like romances and also fab for those who, like me, don’t want to be slapped in the face with a sickly love story.
Despite being a book about reincarnation and time travel, The Next Together felt honest and real in a way that many contemporary YA novels struggle to achieve. This was definitely down Lauren’s depiction of normal narrative and her brilliantly written recognisable characters. I especially loved reading Kate’s relationship with her grandmas, Flo and Nancy, because it felt touching and completely familiar, reminding me a lot of how I chat with my grandparents. I also thought that the inclusion of gay grandmas was a really lovely way of adding diversity to this book.
I’ve read some really brilliant books this year but The Next Together is without a doubt the most adventurous and imaginative. It’s going to be hard to do this book justice with just a review but I think that Alice Oseman (author of the incredible Solitaire) has done an excellent job by describing it as ‘an explosion of storytelling’. This book is truly amazing and after that killer epilogue I’m SO excited for the sequel, The Last Beginning to be published next year.
Let me know in the comments if you have read #TheNextTogether or if it’s a book that you’re going to add to your TBR list!
Thank you SO much to Lauren for letting me question her – click her to read the full Q and A!