Member Reviews

In his debut novel, Lee Cole writes a story about a guy named Owen who’s in his late-twenties attending a fictional MFA program in rural Kentucky. While attending the program, Owen begins dating a Bosnian Muslim immigrant named Alma. The novel’s setting is during the 2016 election year and mainly explores themes of coming of age, citizenship, cultural difference, and social class.

Cole and I share a similar experience of attending an MFA program which is the setting of this novel. I also met my husband while I was in my program, so the dating-turned-serious relationship is also a part of my story as well. No one realizes the multitudes of burgeoning relationships that come out of MFA programs. It’s a rare time in your life where you are solely focused on developing your artistry while also spending hours upon hours alone, isolated in front of a monitor, blinking cursor and all. Of course, this is the perfect recipe for romance, and Cole does an excellent job capturing this dynamic.

Because of my very specific personal connection with the story, I found it really hard to parse out what I liked and didn’t like about this story, but I’ll try. What I didn’t like:

-The love interest, Alma, is very much painted as a manic-pixie-dream-girl. According to Cole, her character is a “composite” of girlfriends from past relationships, but the MPDG vibe is too strong to be ignored.

- Secondly, all of the characters—especially Owen and Alma— are very unlike-able, which made me not care what happened to either of them or their relationship. I couldn’t stand Owen because he was written as selfish and narcissistic. The only character I liked was Owen’s Grandpa, who arguably died because Owen refused to help him trim a goddamn tree. I didn’t care about his coming-of-age journey and at times I felt like I was hoping for him to fail. Why no one hasn’t written about how detestable the characters are in this story is beyond me.

- Then there’s Lee Cole’s claim that this whole story and the characters in it are fiction. I call bullshit. I knew while reading that Cole was one of those dude writers who heavily borrow things from their lives and write it off as fiction because they can’t stand to make themselves vulnerable or subject to criticism. It’s ballsless and a cop-out. I know the type too well, and chances are that you do too.

The things I liked about this novel really stuck with me and kept me transfixed.

-While almost all of them were unlikable, Cole does an excellent job with characterization. The protagonist, Owen, had so many qualities that made me think of the people I encountered during similar experiences and times in my life. Supporting characters Court and Pops were also written with great talent.

- Cole’s mastery and knowledge of rural Kentucky took this story to another plane. It was so atmospheric and felt real.

- The overall theme of indecision and belonging or not belonging in your hometown was done really well.

Overall, I give it a 3.5 because it was good as a whole and I still can’t tell if most of the things that I don’t like about it were intentional or not.

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GROUNDSKEEPING is recommended for fans of literary fiction. Cole's writing is assured and lovely and I particularly enjoyed the character development, setting in Kentucky, and the evocative time period.

Some readers may find the lack of quotation marks slightly off-putting, but I understand this is some authors' preference.

In many ways, this novel feels like a more grown-up Sally Rooney. If you're looking for a rip-roaring plot, you're better served elsewhere, but if you appreciate literary fiction, GROUNDSKEEPING is a winner.

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Groundskeeping is a beautifully written novel that I think works best for fans of Sally Rooney - with its complex characters and relationships, lack of quotation marks, and compelling writing. Admittedly, I did not care for its plot and conflicts as I am not American and thus, did not have a full understanding nor genuine interest in its setting. Yet, I found myself gripped by the complexities of the characters' relationship and the beauty in which Lee Cole wrote humanity.

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I want to start off by saying that Groundskeeping is a beautifully written novel with remarkable details and descriptions. Aside from the amazing writing, the supporting characters were another standout part of the novel for me. I especially loved Pop, Cort, and Rando. The main characters, Owen and Alma, are not always likable, but they are complex, realistic, and engaging for the reader. I also appreciated the rural American setting and how it is used to explore class, politics, religion, and the opioid crisis. Finally, I thought the ending was a perfect wrap-up for this coming of age journey. My two main issues with the story were stylistic choices. I am never a fan of novels that lack chapters, and the absence of quotation marks made it hard to decipher who was speaking at times. Overall, it was a fantastic debut novel, and I will be reading more of Cole’s work in the future.

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Groundskeeping by Lee Cole is a novel about Owen, a groundskeeper at a small local college in Kentucky. He meets Alma, a writer in residence at the college, and they begin their relationship. They are completely different as Alma is from a liberal Bosnian immigrant family and Owen's family is very republican and southern. I enjoyed the discussions they would have together, and I found both characters to be very thoughtful. Here are some thoughts from Owen about his relationship with Alma: "I wished I could go back, movement by movement, like retracing footsteps in the snow, till I reached the point where I began. I would take a different path, across a fresh, unbroken surface, and she would see me then, perhaps, the way she wanted to see me. But who would this man be--this man without mistakes? What would she want from him?" I enjoyed this book, but it is more of a thoughtful character study, so it was a little slow-going at times for me. Thanks to NetGalley for the free digital review copy. All opinions are my own.

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Thank you to Netgalley and Knopf Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review!

Ohhh boy. It's wild to me how a book can start off as a strong 4 star read in the beginning, but fall to a whopping 2 stars by the end. As a whole, this book really didn't work for me. But let me first talk about what I liked about it:

Though I found the writing to be almost annoyingly philosophical and meandering at times, I can't argue with the fact that it is objectively very good.

There are a lot of different themes presented within our main character Owen's inner monologues, and being a millennial myself, I found many of them to be incredibly relatable. Owen's musings touch on general loneliness, misunderstandings between family members of different generations, trying (and feeling like you're failing) to cultivate a personal identity and a sense of purpose in life, and all of the different ways that you present yourself to the world, to name a few. I was also interested in the questions that this book presented around if what you do defines who you are and what you're worth, whether or not it SHOULD, and if it doesn't, then what does?

I also think that Lee Cole wrote rural Kentucky incredibly well - the story definitely wouldn't have been as impactful if it had taken place anywhere else, and I loved the idea of simultaneously being resentful and in love with where you're from - it's a push/pull relationship many of us know all too well.

But while the writing is the shining star of this book, everything else fell flat for me.

The pitch of this book is that it's following a millennial man who moves back in with his Trump-supporting family and grapples with their "fraught relationship." While that is literally true, I'd say the book felt more like being trapped inside the mind of an aggressively selfish and directionless white man who either gets defensive or complains about nearly everything.

In general, I love morally-gray, unlikeable, and flawed characters- but I need them to be dynamic, and this book did not deliver on that. Owen reacted the same way I knew he would in every single situation he was presented with throughout the book. He does not learn from or change as a result of his experiences whatsoever, and after a while it just got exhausting.

Overall, I think if Owen's philosophical inner monologues had solidified into saying something more concrete or ended up having more of a point in the long run, I would have liked this book a lot better. But if you don't care about a book coming outright and saying something, and just like a character study with little to no plot, you might really enjoy this book!

Thank you again to Netgalley and Knopf Publishing Group for the e-copy of this book. All opinions are my own :)

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A slow-paced drama of two people from very different worlds meeting and trying to navigate a post-trump election era together.

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Groundskeeping is a debut novel from Lee Cole. I love to read all the books from the Read with Jenna Picks. The book is set in 2016 in Kentucky. Owen has a job as a groundskeeper in order to take some college classes. This story was relevant to today. There was romance and it was beautifully written. The character's love interest, Alma, is from Bosnia and is also a writer. I loved the relationship between Owen and his grandfather. The book was about love, loss and surviving in the world. I would definitely recommend this book to my book club and purchase the book for my library. Thank you to NetGalley for the copy of the book.

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Rounded down from 4.5, and one of my favorite novels of the year so far. This is an extremely accomplished first novel, and an enjoyable addition to the long shelf of American novels about young American novelists, and is suffused with the same level of charm and human warmth as Lily King's <i>Writers and Lovers</i>.

Cole succeeds admirably in creating a lived-in sense of place, from the hipster bars of gentrified Louisville to the dying post-industrial towns of the Ohio Valley. His sentimental attachment to his native Kentucky never overpowers his deft exploration of the fracturing of America along class, educational, racial, and cultural lines before and after the 2016 election. He never looks down on his characters, some of whom happen to be evangelical Christian Trump voters, and avoids the traps of sanctimony and disdain that would befall overeducated liberal Blue State readers of literary fiction.

Owen Callahan is a close observer of a year in his semi-adult life as a 28-year-old millennial, as he stumbles towards a possible vocation as a writer and falls in love with another, more successful writer. And perhaps this novel is the cleaned-up version of the autofictional draft that he's writing within the novel, which makes this much more than the standard narrative of a callow youth groping towards self-knowledge. Since graduating college with an English degree, Owen's been living hand-to-mouth in a series of minimum-wage jobs, working through some unresolved chemical dependencies, and has spent a couple of months living out of his car.

Returning home to Kentucky to work on the groundskeeping crew of an elite college, Owen trims trees by day and takes writing classes in the English department by night. Perpetually broke and living rent-free in his elderly grandfather's basement, he has a strained relationship with his disappointed working-class parents, who are divorced and remarried. He has the compulsive need to write and a lifelong love of reading, but not the discipline or focus, or the ability to get out of his own way.

But this novel is really a millennial love story about two people who aren't yet ready for true intimacy or commitment. In the novel's first scene, Owen meets Alma Hadzic, a visiting writer-in-residence, at a grad student party. She's upper-middle-class, Princeton-educated, and grew up in an upscale DC suburb with successful immigrant parents. And she's already enjoying the beginning of a stellar career , having already published a well-received collection of short stories based on her Bosnian Muslim family's escape from Sarajevo (one of the novel's high points is Owen's retelling of one of Alma's short stories), with a volume of poetry on the way. But Owen (or Cole writing as Owen) doesn't make this poor boy's semi-obscure rich-girl object of desire cohere as an entirely credible character, with motives as believable as his own.

This isn't a plot-driven novel, and it gently meanders through a school year, but Cole provides it with a strong underlying sense of structure, with beautifully resolved subplots. And the cast of supporting characters (especially the male ones) are vividly and sympathetically rendered. The prose is smooth, immersive, and finely-observed throughout. Very highly recommended.

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Groundskeeping by Lee Cole
Pub Date: 1 March 2022
Genre: General Fiction
Rating: 5 stars 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

“I don’t trust anybody who hasn’t fucked up their life at one time or another.”

The Premise: Some might say Owen Callahan has fucked up his life, including Owen. Having returned to his small hometown in Kentucky to live with family while he finds a job groundskeeping on the nearest campus in hopes of taking a few writing classes at a discount; Owen doesn’t expect to find connection in visiting scholar Alma Hadzic—on a deeper level than either of them could imagine.

“I felt the competing desires, as I often did when meeting someone new, to know everything at once and to save it all for later. It was like the feeling one has reading a good book, the sensation of being propelled toward the end and at the same time wishing to linger.”

The Review: One of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett, described Lee Cole as a “hugely gifted” writer, and I know no better way to say it. There is something wholly intoxicating and addictive in the way he writes. You get completely lost in the best possible way. Groundskeeping is many things—a coming of age, a reckoning with self and the idea of one’s own potential, and the deeply complex bonds of family. But more than anything, Groundskeeping is a love story. The kind of love story I have been craving: A real, sweet, unpretentious, complicated, paper bag, tin can, grounded, organic love story between two people at a party. Their mess and their undeniable chemistry. It’s perfect. I am in love with it and am making everyone I know read it. Including you, now go forth & read excellence!

For a more in-depth review check out one of my favorite follows @nocriticsallowed who wrote a gorgeous three part post on this debut novel that says it far better than I ever could.

Thank you @aaknopf @doubledaybooks for the finished copy, I shall cherish it a long time.

#groundskeeping #lit #fiction #book #bookstagram #review #recommended #bookclub #inbookstoresnow #newrelease #debut #novel #kentucky #readwithjenna #lovestory #saturday

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I requested this from NetGalley based on the description and I was delighted when Jenna Bush Hager chose it for her March Read with Jenna pick. This engaging novel is a character-driven story about the relationship between two young writers with very different backgrounds. The writing style reminded me of Sally Rooney. Thank you to NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group for the opportunity to read an advanced copy.

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GROUNDSKEEPING by Lee Cole is a slow-moving story about a young man trying to find himself again. Kentucky born and bred Owen has started a landscaping job and is able to take a writing class for free at the local university. There, he meets an accomplished, but lonely visiting professor, Alma Hadzic, and they are attracted to each other: "We both laughed at this. I felt the competing desires, as I often did when meeting someone new, to know everything at once and to save it all for later. It was like the feeling one has reading a good book, the sensation of being propelled toward the end and at the same time wishing to linger." Owen grapples with his rural, Southern roots, especially in contrast to Alma's life as an immigrant from Bosnia who graduated from Princeton, but debut author Cole patiently describes their interactions and allows readers to appreciate the growth for both characters. GROUNDSKEEPING received starred reviews from Booklist and Kirkus.

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Groundskeeping follows the protagonist, Owen, as he figures out what he wants to do with his life and navigates a new relationship. This is set against the backdrop of 2016 politics in the United States, as Owen works/studies at a liberal college and deals with his own conservative family. There's a lot going on in the background, but the plot meanders a bit. It picked up for me in the second half but I ultimately found Owen frustrating. Thanks to NetGalley and Knopf for the ARC.

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Two worlds collide when Owen, working as a groundskeeper at a college, meets Alma, a writer in residence. Alma is a Bosnian immigrant from the DC area, while Owen has grown up in Kentucky. The story takes place as Donald Trump takes office. With varying political views and backgrounds, the characters were very interesting. As the reader, I felt I really got to know the many characters. I think that was my favorite part of the book. While this wasn’t a page turner, I loved the story. Very well written and will stay with me for quite some time. I highly recommend.

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What a stunning debut novel! Owen, a groundskeeper takes literature classes at.the college he is working at take a good living. He meets Alma there. There lives couldn't be more different. A perfect book to read with a book club!

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What a stunning debut! Deeply relevant, contemporary, more than just a romance. A man and a woman from different political, social, cultural backgrounds come together in this rich story of reconciling who you are with who you want to be. Well written with rich, complex characters.

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Two very different people come together in Groundskeeping by Lee Cole. Owen, a groundskeeper at a prestigious college, meets Alma, a writer-in-residence. Owen is a born-and-bred Kentuckian from a small town who moved home after being down on his luck and wants to be a writer. Alma originally came from war-torn Bosnia but grew up privileged in the outskirts of Washington, D.C. Somehow, they're drawn to each other and embark on a relationship.

I received this debut from the publisher and wasn't sure how I would like it. The contentious 2016 election plays a cameo in this book, but it paints how characters interact with each other.

In fact, one of the other facets of Owen and Alma's relationship is how different their backgrounds are. Owen's family is Christian, proudly American, and support much of what Trump represented. Alma was raised by liberal immigrants who are just as American as anyone but with the specter of Bosnia always hanging around in the background.

But it really isn't just a romance in the book. The characters, especially Owen, work on coming to terms with their upbringings, environments, and where they're coming from politically, emotionally, and regarding their personal motivations and obstacles. Even though Owen is 28, he's still finding himself and wondering how he fits in. He's not totally on board with everything his extended family believes or does, but he's not sure if the alternate route paves a path he's comfortable with.

The state of Kentucky plays a significant role in this novel. I've never been to Kentucky, but I could envision it perfectly with the scenic descriptions and talk about the culture and its people. Since Owen works as a groundskeeper at the college, so that he can take a writing seminar and earn money, there's much talk about trees and the landscape. This contributes to the atmosphere and one could say that it reflects the book and life in general.

Immediately, I took to the book and, at times, even though I had a ton of other books to read, I kept going back to this one. I could totally understand where Owen was coming from even though I wasn't raised in an environment like his. I just found him empathetic even when he occasionally slips up. He reminded me of people I've known.

At times, I truly did not like Alma, though. She could be so snobbish and condescending. It was almost like she thought her being Bosnian and an esteemed wunderkind writer made her more elevated than Owen. Even though she was a toddler when she moved to America, was not privy to the trauma there, and her parents became highly successful, she played up her background a lot.

Owen and Alma's relationship reads in an authentic way, but you wonder all the time what's in store for them. I read that some people found the book to be in a similar vein to Sally Rooney's novels. I couldn't agree more, but also I heard murmurings of comparisons to Richard Russo. Even before I read a comment about that, his name materialized as I read this novel. These two writers' sensibilities and style combined make for a fantastic book.

Anyway, the characters all feel real, and I felt deeply invested in the book. I didn't want it to end, and the ending is so ambiguous that could a sequel be possible? Only time will tell, but this is such an incredibly strong debut, and I cannot wait to see what this new author comes up with in the future. I wondered many times how closely this resembles Lee Cole's own personal history.

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Rating: 4/5 Stars

Owen is has been running from himself and his Kentucky roots for most of his life. With no aim or goals, he spends his days doing groundskeeping at the local university and his nights living with his grandfather and his opiate addicted uncle, Cort.

After enrolling in a writing course at the university, Owen meets Alma, a writer in residence. His relationship with her becomes entangled as they try to understand each other and their families and lines between rural Kentucky conservatism and the way that the American landscape has changed versus the plight of liberal immigrants who came to America for all of its aspirational resources.

A bit of a hipster jaunt, but beautifully written, Groundskeeping is a snapshot of rural Kentucky post 2016 Trump election. The prose is a bit choppy - there are no quotation marks to indicate conversation throughout the entire novel, and Alma is at times extremely unlikeable. But it's her unlikeableness against Owen's driving desire for her to like that makes Groundskeeping an appealing read. Would highly recommend if you enjoyed anything written by Maggie Shipstead.

Thanks to NetGalley, Knopf Doubleday and the author for the ARC in exchange for my honest review!

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Groundskeeping is set in rural Kentucky with post-grads finding their way in the world and into each other’s lives. It is the exploration of coming to terms with upbringing and finding out where to take the next step. The characters of Owen and Alma are richly developed. The reader comes to love the characters and becomes invested in their choices.
The story is about a writer as he progresses down the academic path of writing. Sometimes I felt that the stories or vignettes were actual exercises from the author’s path. It has several mini-stories that follow a linear timeline. It works for the book, but I did get distracted by thinking these were class assignments and were tossed in to make the novel.
I want to thank NetGalley for the ARC.

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Author, Lee Cole
Pub date: 3.1.22

Thank you @aaknopf and NetGalley for my e- arc and finished copy of this novel!

Set in 2016 before the presidential election, Owen just moved back to Kentucky to live with his Republican grandfather. He accepted a job as a groundskeeper at a university campus in exchange for enrollment in a creative writing course. Floundering and without a purpose just yet, because that's what you're supposed to be doing in your twenties, Owen searches for his own identity, not just as a writer, but also as a person.

Here he meets Alma and there is an instant attraction along with proximity. She is quite opposite from Owen however- she hold a prestigious position at the university, has an Ivy league education, comes from a liberal background with Bosnian immigrant parents, and cares very much about appearances. The two begin a secret relationship and learn much about themselves and each other along the way.

Groundskeeping is a coming- of- age story, but it is so much more- a story of two different people journeying through this difficult decade of self- discovery, class, identity, familial bods, and ultimately, a love story.

Written with depth and insight, wit and empathy, Cole brings you back (well, some of us), to this decade, and has you reminiscing about this challenging, but rewarding time in your life where opportunities, dreams, and your future- are just within your grasp. You just have to figure out who you are, what you want, and then go for it! Simple, right?!

~ "No one was ever exactly who you wanted them to be. They became themselves the more time you spend with them, which is to say, they became what you could never have predicted." ~

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