What Belongs to You is a Good Old-Fashioned Gay Novel.

Posted on February 3, 2016
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Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is a good, old-fashioned gay novel.   In the tradition of Edmund White,  Mr. Greenwell tells a very personal story.  And like Mr. White, Mr. Greenwell doesn’t shy away from sex.   Sexuality isn’t incidental to this book; it is central.

What Belongs to You tells the story of an American school teacher’s relationship with a Bulgarian hustler named Mitko.   Mr. Greenwell’s writing is at his best in the first part of this novel.  Here he precisely–and often amusingly–describes Mitko’s almost childlike appreciation of the smallest material things and his seemingly genuine  affection, which can be turned on  like a faucet with the prospect of cash.  Early on we learn that the narrator is breaking an unwritten self-imposed rule not to pay for sex, as much from sexual ego as from economics.  But the narrator succumbs to Mitko’s charms.  The reader isn’t entirely sure why.  In fact, the underlying question in part one becomes, why?  Why does this seemingly normal, out, gay, middle class American with friends decide to become involved with a twenty-two year old hustler with only a seventh grade education?

In part two, valuable insights about the narrator are revealed.  Here a series of flashbacks reveal a troubled, deeply unhappy childhood.   We learn that his father was a serial philanderer.  We learn how his first potentially meaningful same sex relationship was shattered by fear and heterosexism.  And ultimately we learn that his father–driven by homophobic hatred–abandoned him.

And yet this central question remains unanswered.  Perhaps that’s for the best.  After all, there is something that is ultimately mysterious about the human heart.  And good literature explores it.

Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is published by Farrar Straus Giroux.

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