Cover Image: Groundskeeping


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I read the first part of this two-part book (so, roughly half) before deciding it wasn't for me. This novel will definitely find many fans, and the Sally Rooney comparisons are very apt. I was hoping to read a campus novel and that element just wasn't there. For me a campus novel isn't about being set on a campus, but is one whose plot and relationships depend on the idiosyncrasies of the academic setting. I found that the first part of this novel lacked this element, and in fact the particulars of the narrator's application to graduate programs and the love interest's presence on campus were dispatched with in just a few lines. I also kept forgetting whether characters were supposed to be undergraduates or graduate students. To the extent that this is a "[type-of-place] novel" at all, this is more of a college-town novel. But mostly it's a novel about young creative writing students and Kentucky.

The main reason I requested this book (besides my fondness for campus novels) was that I was curious to see how the author would portray the Bosnian-American character, Alma. That part of her background didn't figure too much into the half of the book that I read, which may be for the best -- my sense is that her origin was just chosen because the timing of the war fit with the characters' ages. Ultimately I found the novel a little too bleak without being rewarding enough to keep reading, but there were a lot of interesting moments of characterization and description.

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Groundskeeping is a novel about young people finding their way in today's America. Set during 2016, the year that Donald Trump was elected, it shows the deep divisions that run through the United States and the effects of education, poverty, religion and class on peoples' lives.

Owen Callahan grew up in a hardscrabble small town in Kentucky. Drifting after college, working different jobs, drinking and trying drugs, he eventually returned to Kentucky to live in his grandfather's basement and found work as a groundskeeper at a private college with the side benefit of free enrolment in a writing course.

It was at a grad student party that Owen meets Alma, a young writer from a very different world. The daughter of immigrant Muslim Bosnian doctors in DC, ivy league educated and with a book of short stories already published, she has never known hardship or struggle. Despite the clash of cultures and backgrounds, they nevertheless fall in love. At first their relationship flourishes in the environment of the college, but when they meet each other’s parents, their differences are thrown into a spotlight that highlights the deep divisions in their backgrounds and experiences.

This thoughtful, finely written debut novel is so much more than a love story. With its assured sense of time and place it is a glimpse into the Trump era, a time of deeply divided political views and an even deeper divide between the wealthy and the poor. Although the lack of chapters and speech marks will annoy many readers, it made the book feel more like a stream of consciousness as Owen describes his inner thoughts and conversations with Alma, work mates, fellow students and family members.

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A great debut from an Iowa Writer’s grad. We meet Owen in 2016 Kentucky, who is able to take a writing class at a local college while working as a groundskeeper. While working and writing he lives in his Grabdfather’s basement along with his Trumper uncle. Meanwhile Owen then meets wonderkind writer Alma and they fall for one another. Owen takes us around liberal Louiseville, interactions with his right wing parents, Alma’s left wing immigrant parents, and gives us a rough picture of post the election south. I related a lot to the sentiments and the things his parents said about trump are basically verbatim Of what my Trumpy father in law says (there must be a written test and quick Tory all must pass). However Owen really doesn’t go very deep down that road and mostly he and Alma hold their tongues. I have not and do not, and was surprised this wasn’t explored more.

The book is very well written but I found it a bit long. It’s in two parts and I think it could have been shorter. While I liked Owens journey and his love story I almost think it could have been 1/3 shorter. That said I’m sure this writer will be one to watch and this will certainly gain a lot of attention (already rumored as a Jenna book club pick). It’s a quiet character driven book and if you liked Writers and Lovers likely you’ll enjoy this. If not, you’ll probably think this is a bore.

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Honestly, I found this book so boring. I struggled to keep my eyes open.

At it's core, it's a love story but it's just so boring.

Two college students, falling in love, parents meeting, different background, etc etc ....who cares! It's just....boring!

I felt like I needed something else to happen.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for the opportunity to read and review.

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An achingly thoughtful belated-coming-of-age story set in Kentucky; Owen is a man adrift, working as a groundskeeper at a storied university in exchange for minimum wage and the opportunity to attend a writing class. He's struck by Alma, a successful writer who floats in from the East Coast and they begin a shaky love affair punctuated events seemingly out of their control.
It feels trite to compare writers to Sally Rooney, but there's a vibe that can't be denied. Roony asks the question, "what do we owe the people we come up with?" Lee twists that and asks, "what do we owe the environment we come out of?" Are we obligated to defend communities and landscapes that are stuck in retrograde, or should we feel no guilt in casting them off to become a shinier, more enlightened version of ourselves? Is it worth the tears to try and drag our past along with us?
It can be difficult to evenly flesh out both characters in a story like this, and Cole walked a delicate line with Alma specifically. She went from grating to sympathetic to almost cruel in my mind, an expert on finding Owen's bruised spots and pressing against them until he folded in on himself. It'll be interesting to see how readers react to her.
Read If:
- you like gardening
- gender swapped Sally Roony comparisons get your heartrate up
- your grandparents are the most important people in your life

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What a fantastic debut read this was. The writing was beautiful. The characters were layered and well developed. It was just overall a very stunning book and I cannot wait to read more from this author.

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A multilayered and fascinating debut, a story that could be a love story but it's also a description of America and its division.
I loved the style of writing and the storytelling. It was like travelling to a different universe and meeting other cultures.
I will surely read other books by this author.
Highly recommended.
Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine

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The main characters were effectively developed as immature 20 somethings that were definitely not ready for a commitment to each other. Each could think only of how everything affected his/her own life without much thought of the welfare or feelings of others. Most of the limited female characters seemed less empathetic than than male characters which was an interesting dynamic. Kentucky was a perfect setting to illustrate the differences in people’s outlook between urban and rural, financially secure and insecure, educated and barely literate, Christian and Muslim, Trump supporters and those who support others. The novel is well written and reads a bit like an autobiography.

Thanks to NetGalley and Alfred A. Knopf Publishing for the ARC to read and review.

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A coming if age in turbulent times. Story of growth, love and finding a place for yourself.

The pace was a bit slow - just not my type of read.

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This is a stunning debut novel. It is so much more than a love story, it is about our divided America and what we have come to.
Many thanks to Knopf and to NetGalley for providing me with a galley in exchange for my honest opinion.

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I gave a starred review of this book for Booklist.

"At a time when the Trump brand of brashness is on the rise, Owen Callahan is back in his native Kentucky after an unsuccessful forestry stint in Colorado. The drug problem is behind him, but Owen has to remake himself from scratch. Settling in with his grandfather in a derelict house, Owen does groundskeeping work at a local private college. He enrolls in a writing workshop, which he hopes will be the first step to a career. Forever trying to escape his Kentucky roots, Owen finds inspiration in Alma Hadzic, an author-in-residence whose Muslim Bosnian heritage is endlessly appealing. “I’d spent too much of my life with people from Kentucky, whose failures and crutches and small joys were predictable, precisely because they were mine as well,” Owen says. “For most of my life, I’d wanted to get away from that, which is to say I wanted to get away from myself. Being with Alma—listening to her—I could forget, momentarily, who I was and where I was from.” But can a relationship built on vast differences survive? With brilliant descriptions of the rural South, Cole’s slow burn of a debut novel achingly explores the definition of home, fate, and our shared humanity."

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Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for my honest opinion.
I finished Groundskeeping over a week ago and have been letting it marinate in my mind to best attempt to put my many thoughts into words. I loved buddy reading it with another NetGalley reader, as there was much to discuss throughout - this would be an excellent book club pick for rich discussion!
The book is set in rural Kentucky, mostly at a private college where the main character Owen is hired to join the team of groundskeepers. In addition to his salary, Owen, an aspiring writer, can take one course per semester at the school. The book is written without quotation marks, seeming to be made from the entries in the journal where Owen jots his thoughts down throughout his days. Reminiscent in some ways of the style and content of books by Sally Rooney, the book reads more as a journey of self-discovery than a love story as some of the marketing suggests. Yes, there is a wonderful character as a love interest, but that storyline seems secondary to Owen’s path to find himself and figure out his relationships, both with his family and the area where he’s from. Rural Kentucky is a character in Owen’s struggle to determine who he is and hence a character in this book.
Reading this book helped me reflect on my own experience growing up in a rural area and needing to leave that area to establish myself as the person I wanted to be. I sometimes forget how much settings matter, both in life and in a book.
Groundskeeping is accessible debut literary fiction - while the themes and reflective nature are deep, the book was not a difficult read. I can’t help but wonder how much of the novel is autobiographical, as the writer is from rural Kentucky. I look forward to hearing others’ reactions to this book when it comes out in early March. I would love to discuss this book with others - don’t hesitate to reach out to me about it!

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Some describe this as a love story. Yes, there is a romantic relationship around which the story develops. But, it is so much more. Well written, this is an engrossing story, with good insight into the the different Americas that have been ripped apart by the politics of our times. Through Owen, Cole captures the culture of hard scrabble rural life while also, through Alma, addressing the horror of escaping religious persecution and war and immigrants building the American dream. Along with this, we have a delayed coming of age novel! His observations are poignant, real, complex. What a stunning debut for this author!

I wasn’t thrilled with the writing style; but the story won me over. There were no quotation marks; it felt like I was reading stream of consciousness.

Spoiler alert: The ending is a bit ambiguous and some might be disappointed with it. But, if you look at this novel as slice of life, and we have just been give a small taste of it, it kind of fits.

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Major spoiler alert: Owen Callahan pawns the bayonet and never trims his grandfather's tree. And he lies about the bayonet.

Callahan is a promising writer who lives in his grandfather's basement, works as a groundskeeper at a small Kentucky college, and falls in love with Alma, a visiting writer. The novel juxtaposes Callahan's rural upbringing with the privileged life of Alma, whose family has immigrated from Bosnia.

Author Lee Cole nails the social and political climate of Kentucky during the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. Cole know Kentuckians: their bars, diners, religion, and flea markets.

A good story with a lot of local color, set in the life of a struggling and searching writer.

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First thing first: I don't agree that this is a love story as the synopsis suggest.

This is a coming-of-age story or maybe it would be more appropriate to call it coming to himself story.. Owen is a 28 yo aspiring writer. He is college educated (first in his family) who wasted his early twenties doing this and that. He does not feel belonged to the people he is related to by blood or the place he grew up in. He distances himself from his Trump voter- Evangelical Christian parents. He is back in Kentucky because he is broke and need a place to stay. So he stays in his grandfather's basement and takes a job in a small college as a groundskeeper. Then he meets Alma, a young visiting writer on fellowship. And yes, he falls in love with her. Their background could not be any different. Alma is Princeton educated, comes from a family of doctors and she is Bosnian. in other words, she is cultural Muslim.

Before I get into what I thought about Owen and his journey I liked seeing a character like Alma in a book. She is culturally Muslim like myself. And she is Bosnian. I don't know why the author chose a Bosnian character The book mentions the war in Bosnia a few times but the news from the war is already etched into my brain from my childhood. I grew up listening to stories similar to Alma's family's story.

Now the book: The book itself reads like journal entries. And the stories Owen writes also read very much like autobiographical journal entries. That made me wonder is Lee is telling his own story.

The characters are not lovable but so well written and real, It is as if they could walk straight off the page and materialize in front of me. I felt like I was reading with them splayed on the couch, drinking a beer in the bar, going for drives to explore rural Kentucky with them, Owen, especially, is an interesting character. He looks down on his family and is basically embarrassed by his background. He is very serious, moody (depressed if I may say), and selfish. I was struck by how he doesn't have a problem using other people's stories that's been told to him in his writing,

Circling back to their different upbringings: as someone who doesn't like confrontation, even reading them, imagine my discomfort reading Alma's interactions with Owen's family. ( Please bear in mind this book takes place around 2016 election. Owen and Alma's relationship starts struggling from that point on and one of them having to make a choice between love and career doesn't help them be together.

I have a lot to say about this book but I am having trouble putting my thoughts together in a concise way, It reads almost like Sally Rooney book because of the confused, melancholic 20 somethings characters trying to find themselves. And then there is the lack of quotation marks use. But I think the author has his own unique voice. This was a very good piece of literary fiction that would make a great bookclub discussion, It touches in so many important topics from family and class to racism, anti-immigration sentiments and bigotry in the country,

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Owen and Alma were coming from different backgrounds. If love wasn’t a thing that requires no rhyme or reason, you would never put these two together. But here we were: watching them fall in love, have all sorts of insecurities about their relationship, freaking out about how they would perceive each other’s families. Owen was son of divorced fundamentalist Christians from Kentucky and Alma was daughter of Bosnian immigrants who ran away from war stricken country and guided more by science than religion.

In addition to being in love, they both love writing. Alma was at this university because she was already published author and she was supposed to write her second book. Owen was taking some classes because his groundskeeping job was paying for a class per semester. They were both good and writing should be their salvation, especially after what 2016 brought to their doorstep.

I cannot say this story swept me off my feet, but it kept me engaged. I wanted to see where their relationship was going and how they were going to come to terms with their differences. Ending was bit anticlimactic and expected, but I guess that was more fitting ending than any other option. Give it a try; it might appeal to you more!

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A lovely coming-of-age book. Groundskeeping by Lee Cole is about Owen, a young man trying to bounce back from troubled early adulthood, who is employed by a small university as a groundskeeper. In exchange, the university allows Owen to enroll in their graduate writing course, and Owen begins to discover his passion for writing. The book is beautifully written but was too slow in my opinion. However, it would still make a good read for anyone who enjoys this type of novel.

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Groundskeeping is a brilliantly written coming-of-age book that looks at the relationship of two people who come from backgrounds that are the antithesis of each other and who nonetheless are bound by their developing love story. Lee Cole's narrative voice is true, gentle, and incisive. The descriptions of Owen's conservative Kentucky family, especially his sweet grandfather, are juxtaposed with those of Alma's immigrant family. She is from an east coast, well-educated family, and the reader is completely taken in by the development and strength of the couples' relationship. The last pages of the book leave the reader with profound sadness and recognition of slight hope. This book is one not to be missed; it examines many aspects of families, relationships, and friendships and is set within the background of absurd politics. It's the best book I have read in many months, and I was riveted by the plot, setting, and of course the developing love story that Cole examines so carefully and skillfully.

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This story takes place during an election year between two college students who come from vastly different backgrounds. Their relationship is happily blossoming until they meet each other’s parents. An emotional struggle ensues.
While I enjoyed the author’s writing style, the pace and foundation of the story never gained my full attention. Lee Cole is an author worth watching, though, and I look forward to their next novel.
Sincere thanks to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group for an ARC in exchange for my honest review. The publishing date is March 1, 2022.

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This novel is an interesting twist on boy meets girl. The two in question are 20-something writers in Kentucky. He comes from a conservative Christian family in the south; she from a Muslim family in Bosnia by way of NYC and an ivy league education. The conflicts abound almost from the first page: he, a slacker trying to straighten out his life path and she trying to repeat the success of her first novel. Despite the potential for being cliché and trite, Cole dives deeper into the various relationships, set against the background of recent politics and the hard choices two people have to make to sustain and grow a relationship. Cole doesn't shy away from some of the big issues we currently face as a society and as individuals, and I couldn't put the novel down.

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