Because y'all, this book is awesome right from the premise on up. Jason used to be a child star/teen hearthrob in the JTT mold, but these days he’s muddling along through an assortment of horror sequels and one-off TV guest spots. Despite this decline in his fortunes, he’s been the tabloids’ favourite mark ever since they caught him making out with his best friend Dylan a year back. Ugh. Desperate for some privacy and a little time to reevaluate his life, Jason buys a furnished house in a small Idaho town and decides to hole up there until at least New Year's.
His plans change somewhat when he discovers his new possessions include a cursed snow globe with a Civil-War-Era farmer attached. Ben hasn’t talked to anyone since his sister bound him to the snow globe a hundred and fifty years ago to prevent him from joining the army, and he’s beyond thrilled someone can actually see him. Jason is initially less thrilled to have an incorporeal person living above his garage, but once he accepts Ben is a) not a paparazzo on a mission and b) real, the two of them quickly become friends, and eventually boyfriends.
Which is super awkward because to outsiders, from the local sheriff to a deeply concerned Dylan to the photographers who eventually track Jason down, it looks like Jason’s holding long, involved conversations with himself.
It’s like Marie Sexton wrote WINTER ORANGES with my wishlist in mind. I love stories about actors, especially when they’ve really gotta dig into their craft and evaluate what it means to them. I love ghost stories, even when the ghost turns out to be a guy whose soul resides inside a snow globe rather than an actual dead person. I love conceits that haven’t been done to death, like someone being stuck inside a snow globe. (It sounds so ridiculous, but it works so well.) I love books with complicated friendships at their hearts. I love books that spend just the right amount of time on the small spaces in between the larger events, determined to fill them satisfactorily without detracting from the main plot.
I loved this, right down to the marrow of my bones.
Jason is great. His current situation forces him to really think about why he got into acting in the first place and what role he wants it to play in his future life. He’s at a point where his career will probably never catapult him into superstardom; a disappointment he can possibly appreciate a little bit more now that he’s experienced the sort of tabloid attention the really big names get as a matter of course. Even without that consideration in the mix, he started acting because his parents viewed him as a commodity they could exploit, and he questions whether it’s the right path for him or something he simply went along with at their insistence. He’ll certainly never be mega-rich or on the Oscar ballot with the sort of roles his agent sends him. But if he’s not an actor, what is he?
His conversations with Ben help him clarify all sorts of professional and personal quandaries centred on his acting, and it’s a thing of beauty.
Ben, now, is in that stage of immortality where he’s been through hell and has emerged determined to enjoy himself, dammit. So far as he’s concerned, every day he gets to spend with someone who can see him and speak with him is his best day ever. I've got a total thing for long-lived characters who’ve reached this point. Ben admits that while the globe kept him from getting killed in the army (something he wanted to do to prove his manliness to his father, not out of any commitment to the Confederate cause; he freely acknowledges slavery was wrong and he knows better now), it’s hurt him terribly in the decades since then. He’s dealt with loneliness, isolation, boredom, at least one period of utter madness, and a failed suicide attempt. While he can project himself outside of the globe to interact with the outside world, there are limits to how much he can accomplish. He’s incorporeal. When he’s inside a house, he can’t leave the room the globe is in, even if the door is wide open. When he’s outside, he can’t move more than two thousand paces from the globe’s location. Exhaustion or a big shock can catapult him back inside his glassy prison, where it’s always winter and there’s absolutely nothing to do.
He puts a good spin on his current life with Jason because he appreciates exactly how much of an opportunity it is. Suddenly, he can share moments with another person. He can move from room to room and even go into town, provided Jason carries the globe for him. He can catch up on all the TV he's missed since the globe ended up above the garage. He makes every moment a source of joy and discovery, and it’s a hell of a nice thing to read even as it reminds the reader how very, very bad things could get for Ben if something happens to Jason.
There’s the added tension, to, of Jason being Ben’s sole source of stimulation. They both understand that while Jason is happy to do this for him now, there may come a point where he’s simply tired of hauling the globe everywhere and inventing elaborate excuses for how he’s always talking to himself. No matter how much Jason cares for Ben, there’ll eventually come a point where he has to go back to work, or engage in long-form interactions with people Ben can’t communicate with, or simply need some time to himself. And when that point comes, there’s really nothing Ben can do if Jason chooses to leave him in another room, or go on location without him.
The reader knows Jason well enough to recognize he’s not gonna do something like that on a whim, but everyone gets angry or frustrated sometimes. Every couple fights. While it’s unlikely Jason would do something to Ben out of malice, he might simply snap somewhere down the line, and Ben doesn’t have any of the options a corporeal person would in a similar situation. It's a hell of a thing to have hanging over their relationship.
So, the leads are wonderful. Their personalities and the limitations of the magic that brings them together are a continual source of readerly delight and narrative peril. I gulped it all down.
Sexton isn’t content to focus on magic and romance, though. She’s also all about friendship. I love love love how she immediately emphasizes that Jason and Ben aren't just physically attracted to one another. They connect in a thousand different ways. They listen when the other talks, they ask pertinent questions, and they respect each other’s feelings. They share their deepest selves, but their days aren’t filled with a litany of tortured confessions. They bond over the myriad ways they relate to the world, whether it’s through a walk around town, an historical compare-and-contrast exercise, or a conversation about the finer points of late 80s/early 90s TV.
Jason’s friendship with Dylan also delighted me. They’ve been friends for a decade, with plenty of casual sexytimes mixed in. Casual to Dylan, that is; Jason fancies himself in love with Dylan, something both men know but neither wants to bring out into the open. This state of affairs primed me to view Dylan in a particular light; ie, as a user who’d exploit the hell out of Jason sexually without actually caring much for him. Sexton’s not about to take such a cliched route, though. The two men have a real friendship. Dylan’s not in love with Jason, but he genuinely cares about him and becomes increasingly worried as he watches his friend’s attachment to the snow globe intensify to the point where Jason starts lying to him about it. Even when Dylan does things that seem repugnant to the reader, given everything they know about Jason and Ben’s situation, it’s always clear that Dylan thinks he’s helping Jason come back from a dangerous psychological break. And, spoiler, their friendship survives the book; something I'm always thrilled to see.
The whole thing is awesommmmmmmmme from start to finish. The characters are great, the plot is great, and Sexton excels at fleshing her story out with the sort of details that bring the world to life without bogging the reader down with extraneous information. She’s also keenly aware of one of gay romance’s biggest pitfalls: since the central relationship involves two men, there’s little space for women. While I don’t think the book passes the Bechdel test, Sexton does take care to ensure every secondary character besides Dylan is a woman, from the town sheriff (who is an older black woman) to Jason’s agent to Ben’s sister to the actress Jason remembers fondly but is surprised to learn is keen to work with him again.
One small note: I’d reached the last chapter before I realized WINTER ORANGES was originally marketed as a holiday romance. Rest assured, you can read it any time of year even though it takes place in the months leading up to Christmas. The snow globe perhaps lends it a wintery feel, but there’s only a marginal emphasis on holiday traditions or anything like that. If you’re a stickler for these things, though, this is the perfect time of year to add it to your reading queue so’s you can dive in on November 1st (or whenever you consider an appropriate launch date for your holiday romance binge).
Either way, this ranks among the best romances I've ever read and those of you who go in for that sort of thing want to get your hands on it.