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What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell Title: What Belongs to You
Author: Garth Greenwell
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-1447280514
Genre: Literary fiction, LGBTQ Fiction
Pages: 204
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Love is a mystery. I have still not been able to figure it out and more so, know what role I play in its larger plan for me, if it does have any plan laid out for me that is. I had been putting off reading “What Belongs to You” by Garth Greenwell for the longest time. I know why. Let me share it with you. It is because in my head it was about unrequited love (which it is) and about disease (again it is about that), but above all it was about selfish love mostly and I had been through it. I thought I would read it and it will all come back to me, haunting me all over again, but it did not. I read the book and all I can say with utmost confidence is that you must read it – everyone must. Though it is about gay love, but love is love after all and hence this book will make that impact felt deeply with readers who have loved or aspire to fall in love.

“What Belongs to You” is about a nameless narrator – an American male, whose name and age is not mentioned, teaching at an institute in Sofia – the capital city of Bulgaria and his encounter with a local rent boy, Mitko. The book is about the narrator’s love and desire for Mitko. I wish I could say the book is just about that and leave it at that – but I can’t do that, because it wouldn’t do justice to the book. “What Belongs to You” is a landscape of desire, which is undone for its characters. Their loves are undone. Their desires do not see the light of day and how emotional and monetary exchanges build or rather feed on people’s weaknesses.

The book reads like a confession – the narrator speaks of his encounter with Mitko one fine day at the National Palace of Culture in Sofia and this is how the book begins. Lust is on the fore of this highly emotional roller-coaster of a ride novel. Greenwell somehow eases the reader into the first encounter between the narrator and rent boy. They are obviously to meet on more than one occasion – money will exchange hands in place of sexual favors and this is how the world is – there is really no awkwardness from Mitko’s side as this is what he does for a living, but one can sense the narrator’s discomfort and how he is pulled apart by his love for Mitko (possessive, envious, the kind of love we have all been through) and his past – his relationship with his father as he came out, the boy he loved (K) and how all he wanted was his father to accept and love him for who he was. Greenwell manages this with great tenderness and tact and this was the part of the novel, where I actually cried. I could relate to the dynamics as it would have played out with my father, which it never did and this continues to be one of my biggest regrets.

The narrator leaves Mitko many times in the course of the book. He realizes that perhaps Mitko at some point is toxic and he needs to find his own, because Mitko all said and done will never love him.

“As I had cause to think before, of how helpless desire is outside its little theatre of heat, how ridiculous it becomes the moment it isn’t welcomed, even if the welcome is contrived”

The third and final part of the book is about Mitko’s return – and the part which is most gut-wrenching as it is about disease and how the two cope with it in their own way. The narrator by now has a boyfriend R and the relationship dynamics there I thought were rushed a little. Having said that, what struck me at this point was the xenophobia which was subtly displayed as the narrator goes from clinic to clinic getting tests done. At the same time, the concept of fear was delicately probed time and again and yet amidst all of this is the unrequited love and desire that hangs in the balance. Greenwell never lets you forget for once that the book is about people who love, lose, falter, make terrible decisions, try and become better people in all probability and have no one to go to but themselves.

“What Belongs to You” to me was one of the highlight novels I’ve read this year. It definitely features in my Top 10 reads of the year so far and all I can say is that you have to go and pick up this novel – read it at leisure, soak in the emotions and pray and hope that you aren’t caught weeping uncontrollably.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel Title: Station Eleven
Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 9781447268970
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 333
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I could have easily finished this book in a day. That’s what I normally do when I start reading a book and I am totally immersed in it. That was also the case with “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel. I was gripped by the prose and the beauty of the language and I could have finished it in one day. But my journey or love affair with the book lasted for five days and I also know that it does not end here. I will constantly keep thinking of the book, and will also reread my favourite parts which I have marked and will cherish for a long time to come.

On the surface of things, “Station Eleven” might seem to be just another post-apocalyptic novel, but it is way beyond that. It is a testimony to us being human and more than anything else, to the survival power art can have in our lives and to a very large extent about the role of memory and how it can be, both cruel and kind.

“Station Eleven” is more than the regular novel, well at least to me it is. Why do you ask? Because it makes you feel things on a different level. How else can I put it? It also makes you perhaps live this life a little better than you already are and if a book manages to do that, then it is supreme to me.

“Station Eleven” is not about the end of the world, as most people say it is. It is to me the beginning of a new world and new hopes and aspirations that never die, no matter what. The book is about a pandemic that wipes out almost three-quarters of the world and more. There is nothing left. The old world or the world that we knew is gone. The new world has no electricity, no cars, no Internet, you get the drift. People drift. People try and settle. Things are no longer what they used to be at all.

Twenty years have passed since. Humans are trying very hard to reconstruct life – new ways, new means and The Traveling Symphony, that travels on foot, putting up performances – musical and that of Shakespeare. Amidst this there is a prophet and his band of people which the Traveling Symphony encounter and from there things go haywire. And I cannot forget at the core of all of this, lies a comic, which you will only know more about, when you read the book.

Of course, I cannot say much because that would mean giving away the plot, which I do not want to. Memory plays a major role in the book, as I mentioned earlier. It is these memories that help people survive the new world and also for some it seems best to forget them, in order to move on. The small bits of the book make it so worthwhile a read: When newscasters say goodbye, when there is a glimmer of hope that maybe things will not be the same and someone will come to rescue the living, when people will do anything to hang on to faith of any kind because it is so needed, when you don’t realize that this might be the last cup of coffee you drink or the last orange you eat and when the most insignificant things become the most significant.

“Station Eleven” manages to evoke multiple emotions in you as a reader. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it even makes you want to believe in humanity when it is dying all around you in the book, but I think above all it makes you hope, no matter what. The idea is not about apocalypse or what happened in the new world, as much as it is about reinventing and recreating the world with memories. The book is about the connections we have with people (as the six people in this book do with each other in some or the other manner), about how the beauty of the world can never be lost, about life hangs on to the very end and how perhaps we need to give ourselves more credit for being human. I cannot stop recommending this book enough and I will not. I think everyone should read this book, just about everyone.

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Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood Title: Mrs Hemingway
Author: Naomi Wood
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-1447226864
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

For some strange reason, even though I do not like the man’s writing, I have always been fascinated by the life led by Ernest Hemingway. Something about the way he lived and the way he had no qualms about it. Till recently, I did not even know that he had had four wives. That was news to me and I could not stop chuckling to myself about it.

There is also not much written about Hemingway’s life. So maybe that is why not much is known about him. “Mrs Hemingway” is a story of four wives and one husband and how each of them, were either too much in awe of him or just wanted him to love them and do nothing else.

The story begins in 1926 with Ernest’s first wife Hadley, leading to Fife (his mistress first and Hadley’s close friend), to Martha and Mary, all of them, telling her own story, her own life as Mrs Hemingway and what it was like to live with the man – the most alpha of all males – both in attitude and intelligence to a large extent.

Wood writes with a lot of flair and passion. With each wife and each story, she almost gives it another voice, which is needed in a book of this nature – considering four narrators and all formidable women. I love the writing, because it is to the point – all the emotions – from rage to envy to what one feels when betrayed, are all there, to be consumed and soaked in – to perhaps not analyse right or wrong – but just move with the story and where it takes you. I love how the references to Hemingway’s writing are made – subtle and so integral to the plot.

“Mrs Hemingway” is a rare, short treat, about a writer and his women. Of the personal side – the anguish and need to cope and move on from one betrayal to another. This is a story of four women – who shared the same man and the same love that came from them for him. It is the story of love and life, of art and the self-destructive button it carries in its wake. “Mrs Hemingway” is a treat for all literary lovers.

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Book Review: Ten Things I’ve Learnt about Love by Sarah Butler

Ten Things I've Learnt About Love by Sarah Butler Title: Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love
Author: Sarah Butler
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-1447222491
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 292
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

It was the title’s unusual quality that drew me to it. I wanted to then read it and find out more. What was the book about? Why this title? I was guessing that it would be a love story for sure, however I did not for once think it was a love story of a father and his daughter. Of the relationship they share and what they don’t and how their love comes to be and what they learn from it over a period of time. That in brief was the essence of “Ten Things I’ve Learnt about Love”.

“Ten Things I’ve Learnt about Love” may seem the usual run of the mill dysfunctional family story; however let me tell you at the very outset, that it is not. The story is about belonging and wanting to really badly and yet staying away from it. Alice has just returned to London after travelling abroad and come home to her father who is living at the pity and criticism of her two older sisters. She has never felt close to him and now everything seems different and new. Daniel her father is the other central character who is living homeless, from one shelter to another, and desperately looking for someone all these years.

The story shifts between both their perspectives all along the book. The dual narrative style completely worked for me. What I loved was the way Sarah Butler at some point made their lives overlap and make sense of the entire book. The novel’s every chapter starts with a list of ten things, about various things of life and those were my best parts of the book. More so, the book seems to be a love letter to the city. London forms a major part of the book, almost a third character which is described beautifully. As a reader, all I wanted to do after reading the book was catch a plane and visit the places she mentions.

It is very difficult to believe that this is Sarah’s first book. It is detailed, vivid and almost magical in its scope. It is about regular people and beautiful lives that twist and turn and how somehow one manages to make sense of it all. The book is gradual, subtle and absolutely stunning. It will definitely stay with me for a very long time with its unusual format and the usual miracles of love and happiness.

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Book Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Title: The Marriage Plot
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher: Picador USA
ISBN: 978-1250014764
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 416
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

After reading two of his earlier books, there was no way I was going to miss reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ third book, “The Marriage Plot”. It is very different from the other two though and that’s what I liked about it. An author’s real talent lies in the different genres he or she is willing to explore and takes that risk. If the risk pays off then nothing like it. If it doesn’t, well then at least the writer did what had to be done.

For me as a reader, the risk (if it was that) where, “The Marriage Plot” was concerned, paid off for Jeffrey Eugenides. “The Marriage Plot” as the title suggests is about the much talked about marriage plot that featured in books in the 1900s – the very Jane Austenish plots of meeting someone charming, maybe one or two, and marrying “the” person to live out your life. The difference being: The plot is set in modern times.

The story centers on three people – Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell, three students at an Ivy League University in the early 1980s. They study challenging and diverse philosophies from one another and unite in ways one cannot imagine. Madeleine is clueless and has a keen eye Victorian and Regency classics. She is studying semiotics though and has still remained true to Jane Austen and George Elliot. Mitchell Grammaticus befriends Madeleine and is secretly in love with her, and is drawn to Christian Studies and metaphysics. He cannot confess his love for Madeleine and moves to India for a while to work amongst the poor. Leonard Bankhead is charismatic, brilliant, a loner, who Madeleine falls for (why am I not surprised?). Leonard is everything that Madeleine wants and maybe is not for her or anyone else and yet she is drawn to him. She soon sees what is beneath the surface and her dreams of love and marriage are thrown off-course, before the story goes through various sub-plots and ends the way it should.

Now to the writing: As always, Eugenides did not disappoint with the writing. The style as I mentioned earlier is very different from his earlier books, but completely satisfying for a reader. References to literary works are all over the book and this is a treat. It has its own pace and at the same time the reader doesn’t feel bogged down with the writing or the references.

The characters are confused (that’s how they should be) and fit into the plot like a glove to a hand. Eugenides knows where to take the story and what to do with it so subtly that though the reader is almost expecting what is going to happen, he or she is in for a surprise.

“The Marriage Plot” is an intelligent read. It breaks elements of what marriage was thought to be in the past and at the same time pays homage to it. I would recommend this book to you more so if you are a literary fiction fan, more so for the references and the analogies. I would reread it for sure.

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