Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Cleanness” as Want to Read:
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview


4.19  ·  Rating details ·  702 ratings  ·  141 reviews
In the highly anticipated follow-up to his beloved debut, What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell deepens his exploration of foreignness, obligation, and desire

Sofia, Bulgaria, a landlocked city in southern Europe, stirs with hope and impending upheaval. Soviet buildings crumble, wind scatters sand from the far south, and political protesters flood the streets with song.

Hardcover, 240 pages
Published January 14th 2020 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 4.19  · 
Rating details
 ·  702 ratings  ·  141 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of Cleanness
Adam Dalva
Jan 03, 2020 rated it it was amazing
What a book - audacious, innovative, sometimes disturbing, sometimes romantic. It feels like a short story collection but in many ways functions as a novel, or perhaps more like a symphony. The masterful center of CLEANNESS shows 3 vignettes from the lead's (this isn't a spoiler) doomed romance. The 6 non-chronological stories that surround it initially seem disconnected, but are linked, both thematically and structurally. (1 and 6 are about the students of the lead, a high school teacher in ...more
Jan 16, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2020
Much like Greenwell’s debut, What Belongs to You, Cleanness considers the fraught relationship between sex, power, and communication for queer men traumatized by repressive childhoods. This collection of linked short stories follows an unnamed gay American expat living and teaching English in Bulgaria as he seeks out humiliating hook-ups, struggles to sustain an LTR, and frets about his adopted nation’s political upheaval. All the stories focus on gay characters’ inability to form lasting bonds ...more
Sep 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: usa, 2019-read
I have a hunch that this major release will be polarizing, which only speaks to its poetic power and daring structure - I am deeply impressed by Greenwell's achievement. At the heart, this is a story about a gay American teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria, who wins and loses the heart of a young man from Lisboa - consequently, these events are told in the middle section of the novel, entitled "Loving R.". The first and the last third of the book offer three vignettes each that illustrate the unnamed ...more
Larry H
Jan 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
4.5 stars.

Poetic and powerful, Cleanness is demonstration of a writer at the top of his game.

In his second novel, which is more a collection of interconnected short stories, Garth Greenwell continues his exploration of sexuality, intimacy, desire, and the connections we make and lose.

In Sofia, Bulgaria, the unnamed narrator, an American teacher, prepares to return home after a number of years abroad. He reflects on encounters and memories which affected him—the confessions of a student about
Ron Charles
Jan 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: guys-wandering
Four years ago, Garth Greenwell published a debut novel about an American teacher who falls in love with a gay hustler in Bulgaria. “What Belongs to You” might have withered unnoticed in the weeds of literary fiction. Its plot was cramped, its setting dank, its characters obscure. But none of that mattered. The book smoldered with lust and regret across pages of hypnotically gorgeous prose. Critics and other readers responded with awe to Greenwell’s unnerving insight into the tangled desires and ...more
Sep 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
4.5, rounded up.

Those who were entranced (as I was) by Greenwell's first novel What Belongs to You, nominated for the NBA and numerous other book prizes, have reason to celebrate, since his new book is not even really a sequel as much as it is a continuation of that first book. The narrator/protagonist would seem to be identical: that is, a youngish gay American teaching literature and English in Sofia, Bulgaria. It more or less picks up where the previous book ends, and continues the
Nov 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
Cleanness is a sparse and melancholic novel about an American man living in Bulgaria. His sexual encounters with other men - some of these encounters loving, some purely transactional - mostly take center stage in this story that unfolds across nine vignettes, in which the narrator reflects on the time he's spent living and teaching in Sofia.

Greenwell's linguistic prowess is this book's greatest strength; I think On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is an obvious enough comparison, though they vary
Some books are like dreams that vanish from the memory once they're finished. Others are more like physical places: I can call their geography to mind, I feel I could step back into them if I wanted. Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You, which I read in 2016, fits into the latter category. I've retained a strong impression of the setting, the authorial voice, the general ambience of the book; I liked it a lot at the time, and this sense of gravity has solidified my idea of its greatness. So I ...more
Jenny (Reading Envy)
An early morning Instagram chat with Hardcoverheartsblog helped me solidify my feelings about this book. Much like Garth Greenwell's last novel, What Belongs to You, which I admit I never finished, the narrator feels like the author sharing stories from his time teaching English in Bulgaria. In a few he is quite young, some are during revolution, and in some he is older (but the narrator is the same.) His (very explicit and often challenging) sexual encounters, relationships, and friendships are ...more
Darryl Suite
Jan 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
In Cleanness, we follow a gay American teacher, who works abroad in Bulgaria. The crux of the novel centers around our unnamed protagonist’s love affair with R. and their eventual undoing. Now let’s address the elephant in the room: THE SECOND CHAPTER. Let’s talk about that, friends. The second chapter revolves around the complexities of a consensual violent sexual encounter. It’s unabashedly frank, graphic… and thought-provoking. It examines the notion of wanting to be sexually controlled, and ...more
Dec 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: lgbt
In yet another book that just "gets" it when it comes to queer experiences in 2019, Greenwell's latest book, "Cleanness," is a remarkable take on the darkness - and lightness - of queer being.

Written in much the same ethereal style as his other past works, "Cleanness" follows the narrator as he navigates his time teaching English in economically depressed Bulgaria. With chapters engaged with BDSM themes and chapters engaged with the complications and beauties of gay love and romance, Greenwell's
Paris (parisperusing)
Garth Greenwell'sCleannessis an erogenous, esoteric, hurt-so-good of a novel that outlines the poignant encounters of a gay American professor visiting from the south who forges bonds, both sexual and sentimental, with various men while teaching abroad in Sofia, Bulgaria. Although the focal point of the narrative peers from the most private localities of the speaker’s emotions — his clemency for a closeted student; the distress of filthy, fleeting affairs; the betrayals of true love coming to ...more
Feb 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
I’d met E. before, a half dozen years prior. Our worlds had collided through mutual friends, a dorm room party, heaping amounts of alcohol, a practical joke gone wrong. Being the butt of said joke, my initial perception of E. was clouded; I found her to be bitchy, cold, cutting. Conversely, she found me obnoxious, self-centered; I could hardly blame her. While a guise masking my own insecurities, I’d elevated my repugnance for reactive purposes, a metaphorical bear-poking. It worked.

Jessica Woodbury
Jan 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: arc, lgbtq
I read this book slowly, taking in just one or two of its 9 vignettes at a time. Some of the stories are slow, meandering, meditative. Others are intense and urgent. Me being me, I have to work a bit at the former and breeze through the latter. Luckily I'd read Greenwell's previous novel and knew that even if it took me a while it would be worth it. And it was.

All that said, what elevated this novel above WHAT BELONGS TO YOU for me personally was its absolutely perfectly written sex scenes.
Jan 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
The author returns to the same setting and similar themes as his previous novel, “What Belongs To You” from 2016. An unnamed narrator, an American writer and English teacher living in Bulgaria, describes encounters and relationships in a country trying to become modern and escape the shadow of its Soviet Past. The novel is broken into three parts, three chapters each. Somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories, the plot in this book is very thin. What connects this novel is the ...more
Jan 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
No surprise over here that Garth Greenwell has written one of the most erotic books I've ever read; what makes this book so essential, for me at least, is the way he smashes taboos of sexuality while exposing how our sexuality is tangled up in the snares of human shame.

*Cleanness* is far from being a downer. In fact, the three middle chapters are about as soul-crushingly honest and tender as you can get. The last lines of each of these chapters rang inside me with a beautiful clamor.

I know I'll
Larry Olson
Jan 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

In Garth Greenwell's follow-up, readers return to the setting (Bulgaria) and narrator of his first novel “What Belongs to You.” Like the first book, “Cleanness” deconstructs themes as numerous as teaching, traveling, sexuality, friendship, and trauma, while simultaneously standing on its own as a formal blend memoir/short fiction/travelogue. The narrator is filled with a hope that's blended with sorrow, described in the chapter called "Cleanness." “Sex had ... always
Chris Haak
Jan 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
Beautifully written, honest and observant novel about love, desire and homosexuality with Sofia (Bulgaria) at its background.
Thank you Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Edelweiss for the ARC.
Lindsay Loson
Jan 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: netgalley, 2020-reads
Thank you to FSG for this ARC, out January 14th, 2020!

I had been seeing Cleanness making the rounds on some popular bookstagrams for a while, and with all the praise it had been getting knew I also wanted to read it badly. If I hadn't been busy, I could've finished this book in a day; that's how hard it grabs you and doesn't let go. I was immediately entranced by our narrator, and how he is confused by old lovers, disgusted but also enamored by new ones. Greenwell's writing just hooks you from
Kim Lockhart
Jan 21, 2020 rated it liked it
If you've ever been assigned contour drawing as a student, you'll remember the practice of sketching without ever allowing the pencil to lift from the page. It's a discipline which may feel constrained, even unnatural.

The next step is to brush the entire page with light neutral colors, adding depth and tone. Only once this step is completed, does the artist add vibrant splashes of color, revealing the full expression of the composition.

The stories of Garth Greenwell's protagonist remind me of
Jim Coughenour
Feb 02, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: bleakfiction, gaiety
For anyone who’s read What Belongs to You the voice and setting will be familiar: an American teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria, something of a sad sack but an astute observer of himself and maybe the young men that capture his attention as well. All the stories unfold from a first-person perspective, so much so that they read like chapters in a novel. Yet this book doesn’t feel like “more of the same.” There is something starker, dirtier about Cleanness.

I’m impressed by the way Greenwell has
Feb 07, 2020 rated it liked it
This may sound rather harsh, but I really don't know what Greenwell was trying to accomplish with Cleanness. I remember thoroughly enjoying his debut, What Belongs to You, a couple years ago--the poetic writing, deep melancholic nature of the narrator's relationship with Mitko, it all worked for me. Greenwell quickly became a rising star in LGBT literary circles, and I eagerly awaited his next output. Cleanness has been billed as a quasi sequel of sorts to WBTY, with a nameless American teacher ...more
Beautiful, emotionally naked, raw, frank, tender, explicit. A book to sit beside Edinburgh and How We Fight For Our Lives .

"But then there's no fathoming pleasure, the forms it takes or their sources, nothing we can imagine is beyond it; however far beyond the pale of our own desires, for someone it is the intensest desire, the key to the latch of the self, or the promised key, a key that perhaps never turns."

CW for sexual violence on the page (neither long nor gratuitous). There are also two
Feb 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Brutally dazzling; gorgeously written; deeply evocative; and painful as heck. At my age, I want to know. I want to know all that I can know about this world. I want to know personal geography, the landscape of love, the terrain of relationships, and what all humans have in common. This is by far the most explicit novel about gay encounters that I have read, but it is also one of the most lyrically written expressions of love and desire and need and loneliness that I have ever read. I know for a ...more
Feb 16, 2020 rated it liked it
Garth Greenwell is a talented and observant writer - he spins the most evocative and visually drenched similes!

I appreciated Cleanness, but felt that its vignette-based structure was a detriment. There is a broad character arc, but providing small snippets of the main character’s experience with love, lust and loss in Bulgaria left me feeling cold and unattached. There is also quite a bit gay erotica that was sensual, dirty and fantastic. However, because I felt very indifferent about this
Rachel León
Even better than What Belongs to You
Jan 08, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: edelweiss
Full review at

I appreciate that this is objectively a really good book, and for specific readers it will be an amazing read - it was just not a book that worked for me. I don't love the explicit sex in it and wish there was an actual plot. But it is beautifully written and probably one of the best written books I'll read all year.
Mark Ward
Jan 25, 2020 rated it it was ok
*Spoilers throughout*

In 2016, I read a library copy of What Belongs to You and loved it so much, I bought a copy shortly after, and read it again. It was a perfect little novel, really. I know there are people who prefer the novella Mitko (which is an earlier version of the first section of WBTY) but I read WBTY first, and I thought it was all absolutely necessary, perfect even. Beautifully written, it told the story of the unnamed narrator’s relationship – no, experiences – with Mitko, with a
Jose  Rodriguez
Jan 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
There was no question in my mind when I started reading this book that it would deserve five stars. I was immediately mesmerized by the writing, the exquisite description of people and venues, the integration of the author’s intimate feelings and demons with living in Sofia, Bulgaria.
This is not a novel, but a collection of nine interrelated short stories. There’s very little plot, and when it happens is just an auxiliary element. The narrator is a gay American teaching English in a prep school
Greenwell writes beautiful sentences, assembled into unique rhythmic patterns that are made even more evident in his own audiobook narration, which is appropriate since the whole of these nine stories are linked by the interior monologue of the protagonist, clearly a stand-in for the author. The unnamed narrator is a gay American teaching English in the dreary post-Soviet capital of Bulgaria, the once-proud, once-beautiful Sofia, the setting of Greenwell's well-regarded debut novel, What Belongs ...more
« previous 1 3 4 5 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • Homie
  • The Topeka School
  • Topics of Conversation
  • Real Life
  • In the Dream House
  • Verge: Stories
  • Uncanny Valley
  • Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through
  • A Beautiful Crime
  • Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book
  • On Swift Horses
  • The Man Who Saw Everything
  • Death in Her Hands
  • How We Fight For Our Lives
  • Lie With Me
  • Creatures
  • Imaginary Museums
  • Exquisite Mariposa
See similar books…
Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You, which won the British Book Award for Debut of the Year, was longlisted for the National Book Award, and was a finalist for six other awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice, it was named a Best Book of 2016 by over fifty ...more
No trivia or quizzes yet. Add some now »
“That's the worst thing about teaching, that our actions either have no force at all or have force beyond all intention, and not only our actions but our failures to act, gestures and words held back or unspoken, all we might have done and failed to do; and, more than this, that the consequences echo across years and silence, we can never really know what we've done.” 1 likes
“That's the worst thing about teaching, that our actions either have no force at all or have force beyond all intention, an not only our actions but our failures to act, gestures and words held back or unspoken, all we might have done and failed to do; and, more than this, that the consequences echo across years and silence, we can never really know what we've done.” 0 likes
More quotes…