Something of a Review of Garth Greenwell’s Novel What Belongs to You
I find myself in the leather passenger seat of a very immaculate blue BMW, driven by my ex-wife’s new husband, Etienne, heading north on Boren Ave. We are buckled in tight, Etienne is skimming bumps and rocketing the curves like an Olympic bobsled driver. We are heading from the ICU at Virginia Mason to South Lake Union, where we (Etienne, really) have an appointment to tour an assisted living facility, Mirabella. Facility is the wrong word for Mirabella. More posh city suite, more luxury uptown penthouse than nursing home beds, its facilities offer valet parking and town cars, fine dining, and an art studio for its residents. I am going there with Etienne to check out its rehabilitation services; so, for us, it is more “facility”. Alice, my ex-wife—Etienne’s wife now—has inoperable cancer and will need in-patient rehab to build up her strength and coordination after a difficult setback. I have been enlisted on this venture via a series of complicated arrangements worthy of a John le Carré novel, involving the delivery of a small thumb drive with certain key documents, in exchange for a, granted, only sentimentally valuable set of family linens from Ireland.
I don’t think Etienne and I like each other much, but we make a point to chit-chat. Etienne is a convivial guy with me, though I’ve seen him interact enough with Alice’s mother, my erstwhile mother-in-law, and the caretakers hired to care for Alice to know that his conviviality is well-played, measured, meted out. We have a quiet lull, and then he thanks me for accompanying him. He tells me, “your heart is in the right place,” which I wave off. That turn of phrase didn’t strike me as quite right in the moment, but I come to suspect it’s exactly what he meant.
The circular drive in front of the entrance comes up faster than expected and Etienne gets a little fancy to avoid taking out an elderly woman, who he didn’t see chugging along in a motorized scooter behind the rhododendron hedge. He can’t figure out a better place to park, so he leaves me in the middle of the roundabout, and goes inside to ask. This wait in his car makes me anxious about time, because I need to meet a friend soon (which I had told Etienne) to go the movies (which I hadn’t told Etienne). I’m also anxious to finish reading a novel so that I can make the deadline for the review I need to write for it. During the wait, I do get a sort of glee, though, when I realize that this car with leather bucket seats that cup the buttocks and self-adjust during turns has a chintzy, analog dashboard clock.
I’d started Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs to You earlier that day on the bus ride to the hospital to see my ex-wife. In diving into the book, I had the irrational sense that an omniscient bibliotherapist had conspired to get me to read it. Bibliotherapy, a method ascribed to by the luminary Alain de Botton, is expressive therapy that involves the reading of specific texts with the purpose of healing. It uses an individual's relationship to the content of books and poetry and other written words as therapy. Greenwell’s book seemed hardly a candidate for bibliotherapy in my case. What Belongs to You follows an unnamed gay American narrator, working as an ESL teacher in Bulgaria and his relationship with a man named Mitko. The novel focuses on the years following the end of the brief romantic relationship between the two men. What starts out as a fleeting tryst quickly becomes complicated as the American narrator falls in love with Mitko, who sees the narrator more as a client (Mitko works as a prostitute). The narrator, for his part, tends to patronize Mitko and see him as unequal and incapable of love, and Greenwell’s exploration of the power imbalance and inequities of exchange is wonderfully nuanced and double-edged. The power differential between the two characters in the novel rubs me. It mirrors the exchanges with Alice. From the first few pages of the book, I found myself looking forward with a certain dread at the inevitable breakup… how it will rend both of them. Counterintuitively, I find their inevitable breakup comforting.
The narrative of romance in our culture, of love stories if you will, is one of a constant striving forward, with the goal of the striving being to be able to suspend striving, and the sooner the better. But this narrative fails us, more often than it serves. In this narrative, we sally forth toward love and the requisite optimism. But the arc in narrative often fails to acknowledge the casualties of the advance, which are, almost to a person, everyone on the charge. Very few of us will ever not be at least one person’s former love. Indeed, our former loves will never not be our former loves, so where then is the narrative for this almost universal experience? How is it that we know so well the script for falling in love, and yet have to improvise so clumsily when it comes to falling out of love? And what of the strange obligation, the tie to the past script, when love has ended, but the memory of love and its responsibilities raise their head and refuse to bow out gracefully?
What Belongs to You is rare in that it focuses almost entirely on the long tail of its characters’ affair, post-romance, particularly the agonizing, unscripted reunions. During and after my divorce, when Alice was healthy, I simultaneously dreaded and looked forward to running into her around town. I wished that she’d disappear. Greenwell captures this ambivalence perfectly in the novel:
It was almost two years to the day since I had last seen Mitko. When I returned from Varna I did everything I could to ensure I wouldn’t see him again; I blocked him on Facebook and Skype, I scrubbed him from my email and phone. They were measures against myself, really… I wanted to make it more difficult for me to find him in a spasm of remorse; and though I thought of him often, though he appeared in dreams from which I woke more excited than I was by anything in my waking life, I didn’t regret what I’d done. I had missed him, but more than missing him, I had been relieved that he was gone.
As happened with me, (the omniscient and omnibenevolent bibliotherapist might have pushed me toward the book for this very reason), the narrator is able to stop obsessing over Mitko and finds a more compatible partner named R. And yet, it’s not the narrator’s newfound love that is so moving, but rather his resolve to move on again without denying his previous relationship with his former lover. When Mitko finally reappears at the narrator’s apartment door, he is sick and dying, and half-heartedly trying to extort him for money. The narrator’s response is markedly more compassionate and dispassionate than it had been before they’d parted ways, but he also realizes that to continue to see Mitko at all would only revive what was a mostly unequal exchange, and so he decides he must finally send him away for good. The narrator’s decision is heavy with self-interest, of course, but for what it’s worth at least it’s finally honest self-interest:
I had wanted to give without taking, but it must have been humiliating for him, not to have anything to bargain with, and I wondered now if I had liked his humiliation, if that was the pleasure I took in my generosity, that I was humiliating him in giving him what he needed while claiming not to need anything back. R. had been right, there would be no end to it, I knew, I had to give up the pleasure of him, not just the obvious pleasure… but the pleasure of being kind, of what I had taken for kindness and now feared was something else.
It is in these small residual exchanges with the former lover, where Greenwell demonstrates what exactly does belong to you, to me, to us. What belongs to us is the story, the past is irrevocably ours, despite the inequities in the exchange:
I thought I could see him gathering his forces, trying to put on that face I had seen in Varna so many months before; but it was as though it were beyond him now, and with a sadness I couldn’t explain, I watched it fade before it had formed. Come on, he said, are be, give me the money and I’ll go, I won’t bother you anymore. But I shook my head. I won’t, I said, speaking gently now, I’m through. I touched his shoulder, not sure what I wanted it to mean, and then I turned my back to him and went inside, where I shuddered almost violently at the sudden warmth.
Etienne returns to the car after a conversation with the receptionist. Mirabella turns out to be a bust: Alice is too young, nowhere near their minimum admitting age of 61. Etienne is mildly annoyed that no one thought to tell him before he made the trip, but he doesn’t seem mad. He cheerfully insists on driving me to my friend’s house nearby, a charming houseboat on Lake Union. Although, I could easily walk there and he still has an appointment to check out another rehab place, he wants to go out of his way to do this. I’m grateful for the distraction, though, of providing Etienne with rapid-fire, complicated directions in lieu of another awkward chat, in which a current sick wife is a former healthy wife who didn’t want the former life, and all exchanges are confused and the pasts are conflated.
We finally pull onto Eastlake Avenue, where we fall silent. Etienne slaloms lazily around potholes and key-teeth turns while we take in the view of the water.
As we pull up to the dock landing for my friend’s boathouse, Etienne breaks the quiet and waves his hand toward the lake to tell me that a movie studio is remaking Sleepless in Seattle, but set in China. “You could remake it anywhere, I guess,” he says, and I actually laugh. He has a point—what belongs to us is the story, not the setting. “Keep in touch, let me know how Alice is doing,” I tell him as I get out of the car.