A common yet furtive encounter carries with it the potential to unravel an American expat teaching in Sofia, Bulgaria. The bathrooms at the National Palace of Culture have a reputation for cruising. "There was only one reason for men to be standing there," and this young man seems to have found his reason in Mitko, a handsome and charming hustler ready to please for the right price. Were matters to end there, with a simple transaction, the teacher's world might have gone on turning undisturbed, but his obsession with Mitko (or is it Mitko's dependence on him?) begins to transgress more and more boundaries, complicating his understanding of intimacy, desire and himself.
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. As the teacher's desire for Mitko--his company as well as his body--intensifies, he allows the man broader and freer access to his living space, his money, his belongings, his time. The entanglements between them run deep into undefined territories of love and lust, leaving wide open the question of where the narrator stands: intimate lover or just another john? While perfectly comfortable and open about his sexuality, and thus unable to be blackmailed, he is not completely immune to Mitko's perpetually open palm. Always he is giving Mitko cash, 20 leva here, another 60 there--at first because of his fondness, then to assist the hustler's impoverished lifestyle, and eventually to soothe Mitko's temper.
In thoughtful, lyrical prose, Greenwell conjures an ill-at-ease atmosphere to weigh heavily over this constricting imbroglio: "It seemed to me there was no attitude toward Mitko I could take that would let me be at once sufficiently compassionate and sufficiently free, so that I wavered between eagerness and distance." Moreover, the teacher's poor understanding of Bulgarian hinders their ability to communicate. The ambivalence between the two men nears a panicking pitch, further exacerbated by devastating news from the States.
Bulgaria, too, vacillates between lush, ornate cityscapes and gritty side streets and flats. "A large park... at each level opening into plazas and observatory points with sweeping vistas of the city" transitions into "abandoned structures, squat and concrete, slowly being dismantled by incursions of branches and roots," in a proud country ravaged by time and war. 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, associate editor, Shelf Awareness
Shelf Talker: A Bulgarian hustler becomes the object of an American teacher's obsession and pushes the boundaries of his desire.