Book Review: Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You

What Belongs to YouWhat Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There was a phase in gay fiction where authors (or their fictional stand-ins) seemed to be lauded for writing about their encounters with poor, rough sex workers. The books were always ‘brave’ and ‘edgy’ yet never seemed to really explore questions of power and who gets to speak. Sure, the narrators felt confused and sometimes guilty, but we never really got to hear the other side. One voice that promised authenticity turned out to be the literary scandal JT LeRoy.

So, I was a little worried about delving into this much-lauded novel, about an American teacher in Sofia and his encounters with the hustler Mitko. The good news is that my fears were unfounded. I didn’t find this to be the clichéd hustler story. The setting, Sofia, is foreign to me, so I found that interesting. The relationship is singular, rather than a narrator going through various hustlers. The narrator felt honest in his description of a complex relationship.

Originally, the story was a novella, or short story, and so was expanded. I think the second part brings needed depth and richness to the first. And yet, I didn’t click with all the praise and hype. I like Greenwell’s writing style enough, and was engaged by the story, but not a lot happened. I wanted either a deeper and fuller history, or else for the prose to excite me as much as it seemed to for other reviewers. I felt at the end somewhat unsatisfied.

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