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What Belongs to You: A Novel Hardcover – January 19, 2016
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LONGLISTED FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD
SHORTLISTED FOR THE CENTER FOR FICTION FIRST NOVEL PRIZE
"In an age of the sentence fetish, Greenwell thinks and writes, as Woolf or Sebald do, in larger units of comprehension . . . Rhythm, order, music, and lucid expression: there is undeniably a mandarin quality to the way that Greenwell narrows the frame of his inquiry and then perfectly fills this reduced space. But if the novel's formal control has a rare delicacy there is nothing at all hermetic about the story the narrator tells, which has a bitter urgency . . . The novel inhabits conventional motifs in order to renovate them . . . Brilliantly self-aware . . . Greenwell's novel impresses for many reasons, not least of which is how perfectly it fulfills its intentions. But it gains a different power from its uneasy atmosphere of psychic instability, of confession and penitence, of difficult forces acknowledged but barely mastered and beyond the conscious control of even this gifted novelist." ―James Wood, The New Yorker
"In Garth Greenwell's incandescent first novel, What Belongs to You, an old tale is made new and made punishing . . . Mr. Greenwell writes long sentences, pinned at the joints by semicolons, that push forward like confidently searching vines. There's suppleness and mastery in his voice. He seems to have an inborn ability to cast a spell . . . A writer who opens chasms rather than builds substandard bridges . . . A subtle observer of human interactions. He underscores the way expressions of love are nearly always, in part, performance." ―Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"A rich, important debut, an instant classic to be savored by all lovers of serious fiction because of, not despite, its subject: a gay man's endeavor to fathom his own heart." ―Aaron Hamburger, The New York Times Book Review
"Exquisite . . .Risk and desire are the 'coterminous' elements of the book's style as well as its action, terms of engagement Greenwell makes plain from its first page . . . Breathtaking . . . It's hard to tell at times whether the narrator is the innocent abroad or an American abroad among innocents. Greenwell's insight is that the destruction of innocence is a process that never halts." ―Christian Lorentzen, New York Magazine
“[What Belongs to You] is outstanding in just about every way a novel could be.” ―Drew Nellins Smith, Los Angeles Times
“Elegant . . . [Greenwell] describes with sensuous and often unflattering precision the union of shame and desire. . . beautifully wrought.” ―Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
"The best first novel I've read in a generation." ―Andrew Solomon, The Guardian's Best Books of 2016
"It's the specificity of Garth Greenwell's observations that give this debut novel its emotional power" ―Rupert Thomson, The Guardian's Best Books of 2016
"What Belongs to You manages to condense the physical and metaphysical nature of longing and desire into prose that turned me on and broke my heart. A classic." ―Damian Barr, The Guardian's Best Books of 2016
"Expansive, revelatory, and poetic." ―Esquire, the Best Books of 2016 So Far
"Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You appeared early in 2016, and is a short first novel by a young writer; still, it was not easily surpassed by anything that appeared later in the year...It is not just first novelists who will envy Greenwell's achievement." ―James Wood's favorite books of 2016
"Greenwell uses a fluent realism to set the capital of Sofia as the backdrop for the failings of both narrator and his beloved. And the author's long additive phrasings keep the novel humming throughout ... What Belongs to You remains troubling and compelling in its unflinching look at desire." ―Slate, the Best Books of 2016 So Far
"The year's best debut." ―Alex Shephard, The New Republic
"The destructive aftereffects of totalitarian regimes are shown to have a radioactive half-life in [this] exceptional novel." ―Guy Trebay, The New York Times
"Exquisite….Stylistically, Greenwell owes more to Sebald than to Nabokov....One of the great pleasures of his prose is how profoundly thoughtful it is, even when considering physical needs and passions. This is emotion recollected in tranquillity, or rather in melancholy. There is an almost visceral disjuncture between places and actions that are grubby, even squalid, and the delicacy of the lens through which they’re seen. Yet the effect, paradoxically, is one of almost pure emotion." ―Damon Galgut, The Nation
"I had thought of Hollinghurst as I read What Belongs to You, Greenwell's astonishingly assured debut novel, but questioned whether the parallel came to mind because both writers create vivid, enclosed worlds filled with ambiguous and shifting relationships between gay men. In fact, though, the greater similarity lies in their ability to blend a lyrical prose―the prose of longing, missed connections, grasped pleasures―with an almost uncanny depth of observation... [The] middle section [is] a masterful study in alienation and escape... Like the writers he admires, WG Sebald, Thomas Bernhard and Javier Marías, [Greenwell] is drawn to the idea of a body of work that seems as though it is all one book, or, as with Sebald in particular, a territory in which the reader wanders. It is perhaps too soon to say precisely what Greenwell's own fictional territory will look like - but even this early on, the landscape looks too riveting to miss." ―Alex Clark, The Guardian
"Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You renders in exquisite observational and emotional detail a young gay American teacher’s sojourn in Bulgaria, centering on his turbulent relationship with a hustler. Daringly and convincingly composed, it’s a book about desire’s complexity, the painful intensity of youth and a commitment to careful seeing as a path to artistic revelation." ―Minnesota Star Tribune
“This masterfully told story seems certain to find a permanent place on the shelf of modern American classics." ―Jayne Moore Waldrop, The Courier-Journal
“Greenwell’s novel is an elegant and graphic depiction of gay male desire, written in supple, unsentimental prose.” ―Thomas Chatterton Williams, San Francisco Chronicle
"With his debut novel, What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell works in traditions forged by queer novelists both past and present....A major achievement." ―Steven Cordoba, Lambda Literary Review
“The strength of this slim book is the vibrant, heartbreaking character Mr. Greenwell creates in Mitko: object of the unnamed narrator’s desire, fear, obsession and, ultimately, pity. . . Mr. Greenwell offers a tender portrait of the longing for connection and acceptance that inhabits us all.” ―The Economist
"Although this is a debut novel, expectations have been running high. What Belongs to You grew from a lauded novella called Mitko. And Greenwell's literary criticism in the New Yorker and the Atlantic demonstrates an unusually keen and insightful mind. That promise is fully realized here in the dark magic of these pages . . . This is a novel of aggressive introspection, but Greenwell writes with such candor and psychological precision that the effect is oddly propulsive . . . In the end, a novel like this can't offer any resolution except its perfect articulation of despair that anyone with a heart will hear." ―Ron Charles, The Washington Post
"Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You is the Great Gay Novel for our times . . . an astonishing debut." ―Jeffrey Zuckerman, The New Republic
"What Belongs to You is one of the most fearless and heartbreaking accounts of desire that I can remember reading, worthy of its comparisons to James Baldwin and Alan Hollinghurst as well as Virginia Woolf and W.G. Sebald ... It is a novel of rejection and disgust, displacement and transcendence, and I found myself trembling as I read it." ―Johanna Thomas-Corr, Evening Standard
"A great portrayal of obsession … It is in his prose that Greenwell displays his mastery. A relentless logic undergirds his fluid, sighing sentences, an exacting observation of the profit and loss behind the lovers' interactions." ―Maria Dimitrova, The New Statesman
"Garth Greenwell's debut novel aches with desire and tenderness ... Lyrical and haunting, What Belongs to You is a rumination on lust, shame, violence, and the ways in which sexual and emotional pain stays with and shapes us." ?Jarry Lee, BuzzFeed
"Powerful ... One of the stand out debuts of 2016. This is a book that will stay with you long after you read it, and will be remembered as an important novel." ―Cultured Vultures, The Best Books of 2016 So Far
"Greenwell delves deeply into the theatricalities of desire ... But it's [his] carefully crafted and controlled prose that dazzles amid the melancholy, self-doubt and uncertain shifts in his narrator's psyche that entrances the reader. We're privy to a kind of confession with no holds barred when it comes to sex, wariness, distrust and pure unadulterated lust. This is a sumptuous, stunning and unsettling first novel that must be read and celebrated." ―Sam Coale, Providence Journal
"A hauntingly beautiful tribute to unrequited love ... What Belongs to You announces the arrival of a startlingly fresh and brilliant new voice." ―Greg Klassen, Winnipeg Free Press
"Greenwell never shies away from the problematic dynamic that defines the interactions (or perhaps transactions) between the two main characters ... But there is an undeniable tenderness to this novel, and Greenwell brilliantly subverts the narrative of shame and disgust that defines many literary depictions of gay sex ... Greenwell's poignant, clear-eyed debut deserves every word of praise it has received. What Belongs to You is one of the most interesting and important books you will read this year." ―Dominic Amerena, The Australian
“Brilliant … One of the most surprising debut novels to come along in years ... As Greenwell shows us with this beautiful, fluent novel, art is the voice that eradicates distance. It is the voice of love.” –Patrick Nathan, Los Angeles Review of Books
"Brilliant and intense ... Greenwell proves himself a master of driving to the heart of obsession, fear, and love." ―Publishers Weekly, Best Ten books of 2016
"Beautifully written and desperately sad, this is a masterpiece of literary fiction?and an instant gay classic." ―Winq
"Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You beautifully plumbs the depths of physical desire to reveal the profound way sexuality defines our sense of ourselves in the world, the way the body's unquenchable longings shape our relationships and our friendships, our loneliness and our ability to love." ?Matthew Griffin, The Guardian
"Feelings of shame, humiliation, and embarrassment have rarely been as vividly described as they are in Garth Greenwell’s debut . . . necessary and subversively exciting . . . it says things that need to be said." ―Dan Callahan, Brooklyn Magazine
“If you care about gay culture and/or good writing, you need to read Garth Greenwell’s debut, What Belongs to You.” ―Rich Juzwiak, Gawker
“Graceful and fearless . . . a haunting work.” ―Vanity Fair
"An astonishing debut novel . . . What Belongs to You stands naturally alongside the great works of compromised sexual obsession such as Thomas Mann's Death in Venice [and] Nabokov's Lolita. . . Headily accomplished . . . What Belongs to You is an essential work of our time." ―Daily Telegraph
"The various settings and transactions involved are described with a detached, carefully styled literary brutalism that feels very of the moment; however, the emotional geography of the story could have come straight from Proust. . . . By the end of this short, intense novel it becomes clear that the collision between our hard-won new capacity for frankness and a deep-rooted sense of archaic guilt and grief is precisely Greenwell's subject." ―Neil Bartlett, The Guardian
"Garth Greenwell starts 2016 on a high note with What Belongs to You, a novel that can be called truly great. The narrative follows an American teacher in Bulgaria and his relationship with a young hustler named Mitko, whom he pays for sex. But the interaction doesn't end there as you might expect, and neither does the exploration of desire, which Greenwell orchestrates brilliantly. Plumbing the depths of sexuality and psychology, What Belongs to You is lingering and haunting." ―Meredith Turits, ELLE.com
“Greenwell’s graceful, pulsating sentences are lined with such spare and sensual imagery, yet manage to include cultural observations, the drift of memories, and honest emotion, too. . . A dazzling debut novel.” ―Bruce Benderson, OUT Magazine
“Greenwell’s masterful first novel suggests that in addition to all the pain we inherit, something else might belong to us too: something of our choosing―in another room, another country, another future―at the end of the street, just out of sight.” ―James Fitzpatrick, The Millions
“What Belongs To You comes to feel, in the end, like a great enactment of an infatuation, exciting and appalling by turns―a brilliantly observed account of an attempt to make another person entirely yours, to subsume them within your story.” ―Jonathan Lee, Guernica
"What Belongs to You is a refreshingly slim, subdued and contemplative piece of work . . . Greenwell writes in long, consummately nuanced sentences, strung with insights and soaked in melancholy . . an uncommonly sensitive, intelligent and poignant novel." The Sunday Times
"Garth Greenwell's first novel is gilded with the kind of praise that debut writers might never dare to imagine for themselves. . . . The praise is earned . . Little here is metaphoric though no word is spare. Every utterance seems imbued with thought that is deep and beautiful in its clarity." ―Arifa Akbar, Independent UK
"Lushly written....Mitko is a singular creation: proud, violent, tender, pitiable and, in the end, unforgettable." ―Tom Beer, Newsday
"These 'little theaters of heat,' these packets of desire or panic or imminence, these doublings-down of doubt and upswellings of confidence―these concentrations of feeling are Greenwell's subject. The novel is explicitly set in Bulgaria, but implicitly it is set on the staging ground of intensity itself….We are given access to an interior radiance that's blazing and singular, and has much to say about language, about class, about heritage, about desire, about deceit…You know a book has its grip on you if the world within it is so rich, so exquisitely tense, that you resent the real one for keeping you from it." ―Christopher Frizzelle, The Stranger
"Equal parts sexy and painful (and more often than not blurring the lines between the two), the book dives deep into matters of cultural differences, shame, illness, and human relationships." ―Anna Fitzpatrick, NYLON
“There is so much to praise in What Belongs to You.. . let us not view this as merely a great gay novel, though it is one. Let us include What Belongs to You among great novels period, novels of consciousness as diverse as Austerlitz and As I Lay Dying. That is where it belongs.” ―Micah Stack, Fiction Advocate
“[A] remarkable debut novel that already feels like a classic.” ―Jim Farley, The Gay & Lesbian Review
“Right from its heady, lusty outset, Garth Greenwell's ravishing debut novel, What Belongs to You, whirls into a storm both erotically and psychologically charged . . . What Belongs to You is as deliciously unpredictable as the object of the narrator's affection. At once tense, introspective, vexing and erotic, it easily entwines itself with a willing reader, and lingers.” ―Dave Wheeler, Shelf Awareness
“At just about two hundred pages, What Belongs to You feels at once expansive and instantaneous, and its lyrical use of time is one of its most striking and immersive elements. In any given section, every moment of the book is present. . . the novel recalls works like Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and Teju Cole’s Open City; and, of course, it descends stylistically from Sebald. . .What Belongs to You is a haunting, gorgeous, and fierce debut, capturing desire in every sentence―holding the space of what we long for and what can never truly be ours.” ―Alex Madison, The Rumpus
"A meticulous stylist . . . Greenwell's lines tease and tear at the soul." ―The Millions, (Most Anticipated preview)
“I was beginning to think the literary world had given up on sincerity. Too often these days, love, desire, lust, and obsession are treated with eye-rolls of cynicism or comedy. The fallen stock in genuine emotion makes Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You, that much more of a triumph . . . Greenwell’s gorgeous, roaming prose untangles questions of transaction, identity, cruelty, and just how much of a knowing a stranger is willful invention. Along the way, certain observations . . . strike so deep, they bleed.” ―Christopher Bollen, Interview
“[What Belongs to You is] the first great novel of 2016 . . . The book is brilliantly structured . . . [and] Greenwell’s ability to parse the complex emotional push-and-pull between the two men is incredible, and rivals books like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life or Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. His images are spot-on . . . And in Mitko, Greenwell has created one of the best characters in recent years. What Belongs to You is a great tragedy, and Greenwell is a great writer. I’ll be reading whatever he writes next.” ―Gabe Habash, Publishers Weekly (Staff Pick)
“I don't usually like to say these things, but Garth Greenwell is a remarkable new talent.” ―Amie Barrodale, VICE
“Sexually frank, deeply felt, and admirably constructed . . . This provocative tale rests on the theme―to which we can all respond―of the human need for possession.” ―Brad Hooper, Booklist
"Eloquent & emotionally wrenching... A superb evocation of that curious state known as love; of knowing, as the title has it, what belongs to you and realizing what can never be yours... Greenwell's shimmering novel recounts an age-old story with such toughness and tenderness as to make it seem new." ―Donal O'Donoghue, RTE Guide (Ireland)
“There is a sense in which two people with their clothes off in a room bring everything in their lives in with them, but I’ve never before found a writer who is able to convey it as well as Greenwell can, in elegant, formal sentences. He is the new voice I’m most excited about for 2016, the writer whose style feels the most like he’s made up a new way of speaking. . . His shames are both common and terribly sad, beginning with his father’s violent rejection of his homosexuality. He expresses this history in a single, forty-page paragraph that again in the precision of its psychology is almost like nothing I’ve ever read.” ―Valerie Stivers, An Anthology of Clouds
“In prose that is at once refined and lavish―the quiet dignity and control of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day coupled with the agonized passion and sexual tension of André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name―Garth Greenwell takes us deep inside a specific Bulgarian subculture to examine the universal: the disparity between the uninhibited lives we desire and the bearable lives we choose. I began reading What Belongs to You in admiration; I ended in tears. An exquisite debut.” ―Jamie Quatro, author of I Want to Show You More
“With What Belongs to You, American literature is richer by one masterpiece. The character Mitko is unforgettable, as all myths are. He reigns at the heart of this book, surrounded by the magic flames of desire.” ―Edmund White, author of Jack Holmes and His Friend
“What Belongs to You is a rich and sensually detailed exploration of love and obsession. A haunting, beautiful novel.” ―Rabih Alameddine, author of An Unnecessary Woman
“Garth Greenwell is a unique, and uniquely welcome, voice in American letters. The consciousness on display in his debut novel is so rich and restless that it seems practically inexhaustible: a consciousness that rises to heights of both passion and intellect―of passionharnessed by intellect. What Belongs to You very much seems to me not only a great novel but the first installment in a great body of work.” ―Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination
“I am in awe of this book. So intimate, so honest, so exquisitely crafted, it broke my heart and left me in tears. It showed me a Bulgaria both familiar and entirely novel, rendered with candor and deep affection, and characters whose plight and desires seemed at first foreign yet, before long, so dear. Garth Greenwell has written a marvelous book, an important book―one whose impact is as much artistic as it is cultural. What Belongs to You expands not simply the world of letters but also our collective knowledge of what it means to be human.” ―Miroslav Penkov, author of East of the West
About the Author
Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and a Lambda Award. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, he holds graduate degrees from Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Arts Fellow. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and A Public Space. What Belongs to You is his first novel.
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There were moments in the book when I had to stop and re-read the sentences because they so perfectly expressed a subtle and, to me anyway, profound insight about any number of things, from the painful intensity of adolescent desire to the exquisite torture of sexual longing for the person you know, from the get go, is going to hurt you big time.
I often read too fast to get where the story is going. But this book deserves serious attention, and the wonderful language and spare but intriguing plot, with its largely Bulgarian setting, made me slow down and give it the attention it so richly deserves.
I'm fairly sure this is a first novel, and the writer is pretty young, but he really knows how to write, and he knows a lot about life particularly about how it can mystify, hurt, and delight, sometimes all at the same time.
Part one of the novel explores the obsession of an American expat teacher living and working in Sofia, Bulgaria. In a public bathroom, he meets Mitko--hustler and tough, already going to seed but still alluring. Sexuality and appearance are the perfume of one; relative wealth and opportunity the perfume of the other. As their relationship jockeys back and forth one is never entirely dominant but it is easy to imagine which of the two is doomed.
Part two explains the relationship between the author and his father which in turn explains the writer's arrival in Bulgaria. One godforsaken place leads to another and with great insight the author notes we seem to spend at least as much time searching for and creating our unhappiness as we do our happiness. Thomas Wolfe told us we can't go home again--Greenwell suggests we not even bother in yet another surprising twist. Part III avoids the AIDS epidemic trope but creatively interjects illness as a theme--what is simple to cure for some is the death of others--some are merely damaged by life, others doomed.
Many reviewers have noted the sadness and the loneliness of What Belongs to You. There's certainly that. But there's also love, beauty and most poignantly an attempt to understand why and how we help and hurt each other.
While many reviewers and interviewers discuss the book's themes of sex, obsession, and cruising, ultimately Greenwell's novel is about the spaces we are forced to inhabit because society has told us we are not welcome in the spaces it has created.
I say "we" not as a gay man, but "we" as a people because Greenwell's narrative is utterly universal in its relate-ability. We have all not belonged, we have all been told this space is not for us.
The choices we make are products of the spaces that do and do not belong to us. Sex, obsession, cruising – love, fear, hate – acceptance, betrayal, rejection – forgiveness, resignation, compliance – all products of those spaces.
WHAT BELONGS TO YOU is a story of all of us. It is a story for our times. It is a story that, like the spaces of our future, belongs to all of us.