This is a haunting tragedy and astounding first novel from Greenwell. After meeting Mitko in a public bathroom in Bulgaria, the narrator of What Belongs To You can’t stop thinking about him, and relates the story of his doomed attraction in taut, suspenseful, and frequently beautiful prose. Greenwell, who like his semi-autobiographical narrator taught English in Bulgaria for several years, has written a Giovanni’s Room for the 21st century that will move you through the gay cruising spots of Sofia, the low-cost health clinics of Bulgaria, and the internet chat rooms where men arrange hookups. The distant landscapes of memory are as much a character in this book as the perplexing, vibrant Mitko, and both have stayed with me much longer than it took to finish this slim book.
My husband and I read this book at different times, and we both stayed up until "3am to finish it! Ari and Dante are both Mexican-American teenagers living in El Paso, Texas. They meet at the local pool one summer and quickly become fast friends despite their different personalities: Dante loves art, is unapologetically enthusiastic, and sentimental to the point of rescuing baby birds in oncoming traffic, while Ari is quiet, often melancholy and curious about the many secret histories of his own past. When Dante comes out as gay, Ari acts as his confidant and primary support as they navigate fitting in, standing out, and self-acceptance. Their relationship is the beating heart of this novel, but the parents that support them throughout are also loving and unforgettable. Saenz was awarded a tidal wave of awards for this book and they are well-deserved: this is a coming-of-age novel everyone should read, gay or straight.
As I approached the end of this book I read slower and slower because I didn’t want to stop spending time with Isidore! Nicknamed Dory by his intellectual but socially stunted siblings (although he would really prefer you call him Izzy), Isidore Mazal is the youngest of 6, the only one who hasn’t skipped a grade, and the only one who cares more about others’ feelings than his GPA. He’s the antidote to Holden Caulfield, but he isn’t cloyingly sentimental; he just wants to know why you’re having a bad day and how he can make it better. Isidore navigates adolescence, first love, and grief in this coming-of-age novel which unfolds in a world of adults trying as hard as possible to never grow up. Everyone needs an Isidore in their life, Bordas seems to be saying, but a friend like Izzy requires that we be good custodians of our own worst impulses, lest they decide to run away before you realize too late what you had.