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4.29  ·  Rating details ·  171 ratings  ·  54 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
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Average rating 4.29  · 
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 ·  171 ratings  ·  54 reviews

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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
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
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
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
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
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
Darryl Suite
Jan 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I have so much to say on this one. But wowwwww. Tender and understated with bursts of graphic sex thrown into the mix. Rich themes galore. I genuinely think I could write an essay on this book, but I won't be doing that. Sorrrry. Cleanness unnerved me, engulfed me, obliterated my emotions, and tapped into my soul even when I didn't want it to. It's definitely more "mature" than his last one. This book lit a fuse.

A full review will definitely be on its way. But for now, let me catch my breath.
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
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
Jessica Woodbury
Jan 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: lgbtq, arc
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.
Lindsay Loson
Jan 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 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
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
Nov 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
I've so so many feelings. All great ones. I definitely enjoyed Cleanness more than What Belongs To You, and I know that this work ended in a way that leaves us with enough room to continue exploring the protagonist's raw eroticism and variance in expressions of intimacy, but after being suffused by Greenwell's addictive and mesmeric narrative, I really really wanted a different ending for this installment.

But that's on me. Romantic, fluffball, butterflies in my tummy me.

I've been waiting for
Alison Hardtmann
Dec 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: netgalley
This is a novel about a gay English teacher teaching in Sofia, Bulgaria. It's dangerous to be gay here, the small group who attempt to march together in a protest march are beaten. The unnamed narrator tries to support a gay student, even as he deals constantly with his own insecurities and desires, observes this gray eastern European city that he has come to love, and falls in love.

Garth Greenwell's writing is both brilliant and nakedly honest. Whether he's writing about sitting in a café on a
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.
Lauren Archer
Nov 29, 2019 rated it liked it
This is Garth Greenwell’s second novel and this one is just as surreal as the first. He is a poet at heart and it definitely comes through when he transitions to novels.

For my full review, please visit my blog at:

Thank you NetGalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for an Advanced Reader’s Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Aaron Cohen
Nov 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
Beautifully written reflective novel on desire, pleasure, what it means to be desired, the different roles we play in different spaces, in relation to others around us.

A warning: one of the most sexually explicit novels I have read, something to be aware of before recommending it/picking it up; however, also some of the best sex writing I have read.
Dec 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
'They could make a whole life, I thought, surprised to think it, these moments that filled me up with sweetness, that had changed the texture of existence for me. I had never thought anything like it before.'

As a follow-up to the critically acclaimed 'What Belongs to You', I was very much looking forward to this new novel from Garth Greenwell, and it certainly lived up to the standards of his debut work. This is a finely structured piece of fiction, which lends itself to Greenwell's precise
Gerard Villegas
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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
miss.mesmerized mesmerized
An American teacher comes to Sofia, Bulgaria, to teach his mother tongue to students who hope to find a better life abroad with a good knowledge of the world language. While the work is satisfying, his love life has become a lot more complicated since homosexuality is not something that is openly shown in the eastern European country. In a Portuguese exchange student, he finds his love, but things are complicated with the countries’ economies struggling and offering not much to foreigners.

William P.
Jan 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
Even more than Greenwell's "What Belongs To You", this is a beautifully well-written book, with vivid images, finely crafted sentences, and flashes of dead-accurate perception. These things alone make this novel well worth reading. To read "Cleanness" (where does Greenwell get these titles?) is also to enter into whole new worlds of the narrator-teacher's conflicted and compartmentalized life: a circle of his students in Sofia, Bulgaria; his doomed relationship with his lover, who returns to ...more
Brett Benner
Jan 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
“It’s a large world, we’re never as solitary as we think, as unique or unprecedented, what we feel has always already been felt, again and again, without beginning or end.” So muses the narrator at the center of Garth Greenwell’s second novel, an American teacher living in Sofia Bulgaria. Over nine chapters, nine short stories, we follow him through both the trajectory of a poignant love affair with all the intimacy, longing and vulnerability that was hugely absent in Andre Aciman’s follow up, ...more
Kabelo Motsoeneng
Dec 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I was introduced to Greenwell's work through one of the stories in this collection, "The Frog King." Soon after, I read his debut novel and marveled at how honest his depiction of desire was; how intentional he was about depicting the interior world and exterior worlds of the country and its people. After reading the ARC for CLEANNESS, I remembered how much I had longed for Greenwell's Bulgaria, how much I had longed to once more fall in love with language and to consider that the queer ...more
Jan 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
4.5 / 5
There are writers that somehow can craft almost perfect sentences then follow it up with another almost perfect sentence until your mouth is left watering for the next like a street dog begging for treats. That’s how I felt reading this book. The exploration of the main narrators sexuality as he transverses hookups, crushes, and relationships is absolutely a pleasure to read. The setting is described beautifully, and I’m only left wanting more. The only reason this book doesn’t get the
Jan 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This collection is an incredibly moving achievement for Garth Greenwell. It so very successfully ties together deeply human themes of desire, violence, masculinity, love, self doubt and self hatred and asks profound questions. The work’s fragmented structure underlines the narrators confused and traumatic experiences. Most of the scenes are small in scale, but Greenwell magnifies and expands each moment to create stories that feel huge in the questions they ask and the observations they make. ...more
Audrey H.
Jan 17, 2020 rated it liked it
This is a literary sequel to Greenwell's debut novel What Belongs to You, chronicling the American protagonist's experience as a gay man living and teaching in Bulgaria. Both books are muted studies in desire and shame but I felt the first was more compelling because of the conflict between the protagonist and the enigmatic hustler Mitko. The conflict in Cleanness is almost all internal. There are still many compelling sections, two dealing with anonymous hookups and another two featuring ...more
Jan 16, 2020 rated it it was ok
Eh, even though it's quite the read. I wonder if this would have been better if it had been in third person instead of first. Such a move would have removed the bland moodiness, the poor similes, the tired inner monologue of a narrator who just has an interesting - read S&M-curious - sex life in a somewhat grey but scary Eastern European country. I'm not sure much was gained in the interiority explored here, as the narrator himself seems to float through these stories. I shuddered with each ...more
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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
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