Friday, January 22, 2016

Book Review: "What Belongs to You" by Garth Greenwell

Some books dazzle you with plot twists and action, yet some books can truly wow you with the power of their storytelling, their language, and their imagery. Garth Greenwell's debut novel, What Belongs to You, definitely falls into the latter category. It's stunning, emotional, lyrical, and it quietly grabs you and doesn't let go.

One unseasonably warm afternoon in October, our narrator, an American teacher living in Bulgaria, goes to a restroom in Sofia's National Palace of Culture. This is a restroom where men go to have sexual encounters, and he is aware of this, but meeting Mitko, a young hustler, takes him by surprise. He pays Mitko for sex, and finds himself immensely drawn to him, so he returns to that restroom over and over. And although he knows inherently that Mitko is going through the motions with him as he probably does with his other "friends," he still hopes that he might find his way into Mitko's heart.

" helpless desire is outside its little theater of heat, how ridiculous it becomes the moment it isn't welcomed, even if that welcome is contrived."

He comes to terms with the fact that while Mitko may enjoy their encounters, ultimately Mitko sees him as a source for money, and there is a fine line between knowing you're being used and fearing you may be harmed as a result. As he tries to decide what to do with Mitko, an urgent message forces him to confront his own childhood, and the mistreatment and veiled disgust with which he was treated once he accepted his sexuality. He also tries to decipher the patterns in his behavior that has led him to the same situations time and time again.

"...always I feel an ambivalence that spurs me first in one direction and then another, a habit that has done much damage."

What Belongs to You is a novel about desire, and the desire to be wanted. It's about the struggle between following your heart and your libido instead of your head, and both the consequences and triumphs that come from doing so. It's also about how the hardest thing to do is reconcile your own issues with self-esteem, and finally realize only you can be responsible for your happiness and satisfaction.

Greenwell's talent is evident from the very first lines of this book, and his poetic use of language and storytelling ability sustains through the book's entirety. I truly cared about the narrator and worried what would become of him, hoping against hope that Greenwell wouldn't abandon the purity of his story for the sensational, and was so pleased he didn't. This is a beautiful, magnificent, deeply felt book, and I felt privileged to read it. I can't wait to see where Greenwell's career takes him—I know I'll be following.

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