Cover Image: Groundskeeping


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Groundskeeping is a literary love story set against the backdrop of the U.S. election in 2016. Owen, a 28-year-old broke aspiring writer, moves back to Kentucky to live with his ailing grandfather and bad-tempered uncle. He takes a job on the groundskeeping crew at a small college, so he can attend a creative writing class for free. Owen falls in love with Alma, a visiting writer, but quickly realizes how different they are. Alma epitomizes “the liberal coastal elite” with her successful immigrant parents, her privileged D. C. upbringing, and Ivy League education while Owen’s folks are working class evangelical Trump supporters who have their doubts about evolution. But it’s not dysfunctional families or politics that challenge their happiness, but rather the boundaries of their writing. When two writers are in love, what stories are theirs to tell?

Lee Cole is so skilled at creating believable characters that it’s hard to believe this is a debut. Owen, Alma, and their families are all drawn with wit and sympathy, even when they say and do questionable things. My favorite relatives were Owen’s softhearted grandpa who loves McDonalds and Western movies, and Alma’s father, a Bosnian dentist with dark family secrets and a fondness for Bruce Springsteen. The two “meet the parents” weekends are priceless highlights — tragicomical, revealing, and sometimes painful. With his carefully chosen details, Cole perfectly captures the thorny political and social rifts on campus and in American living rooms.

This is the kind of understated, compassionate novel about writers and lovers that fans of Lily King, Ann Patchett, and Elizabeth Strout will embrace. Keep an eye out for this thoughtful story about an odd couple doing the best they can in dangerous and uncertain times. Highly recommended.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Alfred A. Knopf for allowing me to read an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

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"I've always had the same predicament. When I'm home in Kentucky, all I want is to leave. When I'm away, I'm homesick for a place that never was." The opening paragraph to the writer's first novel. The work appears to be partially autobiographical. The protagonist, like the author, grew up in Kentucky and worked his way through school as a grounds keeper. He is nostalgic for the place of his childhood, but finds himself culturally alienated from his background. He begins a writing career by putting together all of the people and events that have shaped his life, much to the chagrin of those who are the real life subjects of his work.
The book deals with the changing culture of our day and the attempt by many in rural America to hold on to a way of life that is gone. The protagonist, Owen, begins falling in love with a Bosnian immigrant who is in Kentucky on a writing fellowship. She sees rural America from a different perspective which highlights the contrast between Owen's current world view and the world that he grew up in. It is a well written and thought provoking work. I am looking forward to the author's second novel.
Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for providing an advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Many thanks to NetGalley and Knopf for allowing me to read the ARC of Lee Cole’s debut novel Groundskeeping.

The story is set in modern day Kentucky with enough details of daily life in Appalachia and the current US political climate to peak my interest in a coming of age novel. The reader is introduced to many characters with varying levels of depth. The main characters of Owen and Alma are interesting in their own life stories, yet did not seem plausible as a couple. Their trajectories were too different for me to believe in their love story.

On the other hand, I was much more interested in delving into the characters of Owen’s grandfather and Uncle Cort. The tension, trauma and familial love story placed in the modern rural Kentucky setting would have captured my interest to a greater degree if the character development went deeper.

All-in-all, the novel is an easy read, has some lovely descriptions of the Kentucky landscape and enough sprinklings of current events to be a good beach or weekend read.

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I had a hard time deciding how to rate this book, but ultimately went with three stars over four due to how dismally it ended.
Owen, a struggling writer and part time student, is working as a groundskeeper and living in his grandfather’s basement. And yes, it’s about as depressing as it sounds. He’s a Kentucky native, which seems to shame him, even though he’s back there after a failed attempt to make it living somewhere else.
He begins dating Alma, a more successful writer, who is doing a writing residency at the college where he works. He spends a good amount of their time together being embarrassed by his background and looking down on his family, while she spends much of their time together looking down on him.
I was rooting for Owen, as were his teachers, his family, and pretty much everyone else around him besides Alma. Some people, though, just can’t help but be their own worst enemies.
Thanks to #netgalley and #knopfpublishing for this #arc of #groundskeeping in exchange for an honest review.

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Owen is stuck between his humble beginnings, as he sees them, in rural Kentucky, his string of menial jobs, and his sense of himself as a writer living a cerebral life. He's convinced that his girlfriend looks down on him for coming from a blue-collar background, and he can't blame her, as he himself continuously sneers at his parents for their unenlightened political viewpoints and small-town perspectives.

I'm not sure what book Lee Cole thought he was writing here. Possibly a book about a struggling writer. Possibly a book of class differences in romantic relationships. Possibly a book about someone who rejects his conservative upbringing in favor of his current liberal outlook. Unfortunatley, the book ultimately doesn't succeed in being any of those. Instead, it's a mash of unrealized characters who spend a lot of time in unfulfilling conflict with themselves and each other, and it all just seemed pointless and pretentious.

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I am not the first and definitely will not be the last reader to compare this debut novel to Sally Rooney's novels. Smart, melancholy 20-somethings in the 21st century making questionable romantic choices, dialogue with no quotations, everyone feeling awkward as they try to be cool ... the very very basic pitch is Sally Rooney in Appalachia.

But that sells Cole's book short. It's a tender, nuanced story about people trying to find their place in the world, about loving your family even when you don't understand them, or like them. It's about different factions in America and the ways we're speaking entirely different languages.

Like Owen, the main character, I'm a first generation college student from a place so small it's like being from nowhere and everywhere. I am almost always disappointed by books about rural and/or working class America. Either authors romanticize it or condescend to it. I feel like Cole is clear-eyed about the places and people he's from. So often, I read bits of this book and thought, YES. Sometimes, I thought, NO, but even then, I felt like Cole was writing the truth as he and his characters knew it.

This is an impressive debut, and I'll look for more of Cole's work.

Thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy.

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I received a galley edition of this text through Netgalley.

An engaging debut novel by a true son of the South. Cole’s authentic characters, particularly Owen’s family members breathe on the page and are deftly drawn with broad strokes. The protagonist’s angst and uncertainty are less compelling and often slows the first person narration with his plodding introspection. However, the reader is drawn to his characters and setting and propelled forward in hopes of a cared for ending. A sweet book and well-crafted story.

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Best book I have read in over a year. Lee Cole is an amazing, gifted writer. His mastery of fine writing is evident. So refreshing to read such a well written book. The characters were relatable and believable. The story was so relevant to our times. I looked forward to reading it each evening.
Looking forward to seeing what Lee Cole writes in the future.

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*I received a free copy of Groundskeeping from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Raw, beautiful, and absolutely relevant to life in America, Groundskeeping is the story of Owen, a man from Kentucky. He falls in love with Alma, a 26-year-old woman from Bosnia who has grown up with a seemingly easy lifestyle. She attended an ivy-league school, recently published a book, and is working at the small Kentucky school that Owen works at. Owen is taking courses as they're offered to him through his work as a groundskeeper. He cuts trees by day, attends class by night. Considered a failure by his father, and perhaps his mother too, Owen is working through his quarter life crisis as America changes (we're talking 2016-ish) and he comes to terms with his upbringing in Kentucky as his life has led him to living in the basement of his grandfather's home. He learns lots through the peek into this snippet of life, the greatest lesson of all perhaps being that people are complicated. Over and over, Owen and the reader see that there is never just one element of a person, despite the fact that the boxes we sort them into typically contain a single category. The woman he loves seems to have had everything handed to her, yet the fact remains that she and her family are Bosnian refugees. His parents are Evangelical Christians, and they speak in pretty racist terms, but they are who they are and give him all of the care they know how to give, and then some. Another beautiful element of Owen's life is that he lives with his grandfather and uncle. His uncle's Make America Great Again sign, and the conversations he has with his ever-aging, slightly depressed grandfather, enlighten Owen to the realities of his Kentucky upbringing and the potential that is there for him but that will certainly slip away soon enough if he makes the choice to remain in Kentucky and leave things as they are. His grandfather serves as a mirror into the future - a portrait of what is to come, should Owen remain on the path he is on. Owen is left to reflect upon whether or not remaining would be the choice he should make, and whether or not the risk of making a change and doing "greater" things is what he wants to do. It helps that Owen is a smart and talented writer, and therefore has options open to him that could potentially "rescue" him from his Kentucky-bound fate.

Anyone who experienced change, pain, and confusion about where their lives originated, and by extension, where the lives of those who raised them began and extended to, is likely to relate to, and appreciate, this beautiful story.

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Owen is a young man struggling to find his path in life. Seeking stability and a new direction, he takes a job as a groundskeeper at a local college and lives in town with his grandfather. As an employee, he gets to take one free class, and he chooses a writing class, because he has always wanted to be a writer. He meets Alma, who is at the college on a prestigious writing fellowship. Their relationship evolves over time. There are so many interesting things explored in this book -- clashing cultures, classism, politics -- all woven into a very engaging story.

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"Groundskeeping" covers a fair amount of ground, and our main character, Owen, doesn't seem to be that diligent about his job as a tree trimmer, his groundskeeping job at a college campus where he starts taking creative writing classes. The book is dedicated to his grandfather, probably the grandfather in this novel, and readers are to assume there is much truth in this novel. I think Owen makes an attempt to cover a lot of ground quickly, as he tries to cover the 2016 election, racism, class disparity, but it's a bit like when tree trimmers leave trees looking somewhat mutilated when they clear them from the utility lines. With a bit more care and concern, the trees could have been left looking more healthy.

A friend had recommended this book because she was loving it, and I had read the description, and being a bit cynical, I wasn't sure I was in the mood for a love story, whereas I recommended "The Swimmers" by Julie Otsuka to this friend, and she thought it seemed to dark, so different strokes for different folks. This book covers heavy issues, but doesn't tackle these conflicts, and doesn't reveal learning anything from the experiences. The main couple are not really that likable, nor do they seem to actually like each other that much, nor do they seem to have any interest in each other's families, so I had a hard time engaging. The grandfather was the strongest character, but as what often times happens to grandfathers, they get ignored and set aside. He was not in good shape, certainly in no shape to trim a tree in the yard, but the grandson, our main character, who makes his living trimming trees and lives in his grandfather's basement, says he doesn't want to trim trees on his free time. Not a likable dude.

It's hard to have characters who are writers in a novel. The girlfriend is the visiting writer at the campus and Cole takes his first creative writing class, and then is offered a fellowship. They talk about their writing, their jealousies of their writing, and that part is the least interesting of the novel. It's the family dynamics that could have been the most interesting, but these encounters are too brief.

This is an easy read, a novel for a rainy day, or for the beach.

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This is the story of Owen, a Kentucky native who has moved back home to live with his family members, earn some money, and find some time to explore a career as a writer. On campus, he meets Alma who is a writer in residence. Originally from Bosnia, Alma's different life and family experiences are intriguing and appealing to Owen. Their relationship grows and they begin to understand their different upbringings, cultures, and family beliefs.

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Lee Cole is an author who was born and grew up in rural Kentucky, and his novel Groundskeeping features an aspiring author named Owen Callahan who was born and grew up in Kentucky…hmm. I would not be surprised to learn that a boatload of the thoughts and feelings in the novel are drawn directly from his life experience, whether or not the events and people are.

Owen graduated from college and then drifted for awhile, holding odd jobs until he had to go back to Kentucky to live of his grandfather’s house with Pop, his elderly grandfather, and his uncle, a truly dislikable character with a disability (the nature of which isn’t quite clear to me). Owen gets a job as a groundskeeper at the local college and signs up for a writing course. The job suits him well: “That was the good thing about menial work–it was basic enough that you could think about whatever you wanted.”

Living in a house with his grandfather and uncle is challenging for Owen, who is having enough trouble being back in a small rural town.Although he is well aware of the hold Kentucky has on him, he doesn’t quite fit in. “I’ve wanted to be a coastal elite my whole life…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 meets Alma, a published author who is living at the college as part of being awarded a fellowship. The book follows their relationship and Owen’s search for a direction in life during the months before the 2016 election. Owen isn’t comfortable living with two Trump lovers, and is focused mostly on Alma: “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.” For her part, Alma is less than confident about her own path “ If I don’t have people around me, telling me what I am, I start to feel like an imposter, she said. I start to feel like I don’t even exist.”

Owen’s life isn't totally stable (“ I had student loans, two maxed-out credit cards”) and Alma, raised in privilege, is particularly dismayed when he tells her how he had lived in his car for awhile.

They spend a lot of time together, even visiting Thomas Merton’s grave, where the contrast between the upheaval around the election and the peaceful setting is crystal clear: “Outside, the whole shitty slow-motion apocalypse of late capitalism was unfolding, but here, within the stone walls, there was peace and quiet.” The story unfolds at a leisurely pace, following their relationship to an uncertain conclusion: “We were just two little people who’d tried to love each other in the middle of a mess.”

Overall, I couldn’t decide if it was just good or if I loved it. I admit that written dialogue WITHOUT quotation marks isn’t my favorite style, but I adjusted to it, and was really involved in finding out what was ahead for Owen, geographically as well as romantically and with his longed-for writing career. Beautifully written and I’m still thinking about the characters days later, so clearly it was effective! I look forward to more from Cole. Five stars and thanks to Knopf Doubleday and NetGalley for providing a copy in exchange for this honest review.

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This is a stream of consciousness type of novel told entirely from the viewpoint of Owen Callahan, a young man who graduated college and then drifted for a few years, sometimes working odd jobs, sometimes experimenting with drugs and alcohol, often seeking financial help from his parents. His mother advises him to use his education, maybe by taking a job as a teacher. But, instead, he moves into his elderly grandfather's basement, uses his grandfather's truck, eats at his grandfather's table, and signs on to the grounds keeping crew at a local Kentucky college. In return, he will be allowed to take one class for free. He has decided he wants to be a writer, so he signs up for writing class.
The story takes place in 2016 and liberal Owen struggles with the conflict he feels living with his Trump supporting uncle and grandfather. Then he begins a love affair with a visiting writer and stops thinking about his grandfather altogether.

Cole's writing is smooth and easy to follow. But I didn't like Owen very much.

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Owen Callahan doesn’t have much to show for his 28 years of living. He recently moved back home to Kentucky to live in his grandfather’s basement. He’d lost his job as a tree-trimmer in Colorado and descended into drug addiction and homelessness. Owen is ruled by the opposing forces of wanting desperately to escape his hometown in Kentucky and wanting just as much to go back home whenever he was away. Owen shares his grandfather’s house with his uncle Cort, a man in his 50s who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident decades before. Cort spends nearly all his time shut up in his room playing video games, but when he does make an appearance, he is prone to strange rituals and occasional fits of rage. Owen, for some unknown reason, has decided he wants to be a writer. He doesn’t have anything to show for it, other than some “observations” written down in a notebook. Luckily with his experience in forestry, he’s able to get a part-time job at the local college in the landscaping crew. The pay is very low but also comes with the benefit of one free class. Owen signs up for a writing class that turns out to be focused on “jungle narratives.” Meanwhile, a visiting writer at the college, Alma, has caught Owen’s eye. Her family is originally from Bosnia, but they immigrated to the US when Alma was a young child and she grew up outside Washington, DC. Although Alma is already seeing someone, she and Owen quickly develop a bond. The book mainly focuses on their relationship and the inevitable conflicts and lack of understanding among people from different backgrounds. While I did enjoy the writing, the character of Owen was just so entitled and shiftless that it was a very frustrating story to read. He and Alma (who was given the position at the college to work on her novel) spend all their time talking, eating, and going out to bars. They never seemed to be writing. Owen never had any money and did nothing to improve his situation. There was also a great deal of Owen lecturing Alma on all sorts of cultural/historical/geographical topics, which came across as the author trying to put in every fact he’d ever encountered. Alma, who grew up ONE STATE OVER FROM KENTUCKY, had never heard many of the words and phrases Owen used. She also attended Princeton and said she spent her childhood reading, but she seemed to know nothing about well-known historical events. The implication was that, since she was an immigrant, Owen was educating her about American life and history – even though she had no memory of Bosnia and grew up in the same time period and general area of the country he did. If she’d arrived as a teen or young adult, this would have made sense, but she’d spent all but her first few years in the US. I was also very annoyed at the lack of quotation marks. In a paragraph, a person could be speaking/ thinking/noticing the scenery, but it was difficult to tell what was actually being said out loud and at times just who was speaking. Toward the end, parallels were drawn between the current fractured political climate in the US and what happened when the former Yugoslavia broke up. The book had some very well-written and thoughtful observations, but Owen was such an annoying character that overall the book was not an enjoyable read.

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The blurb from Richard Russo, one of my favorite contemporary authors, caught my eye. Groundskeeping was simply beautiful. The characters were wonderfully alive, imperfect and endearing. The prose was carefully manicured--clean and never showy. But it often stopped me mid-sentence with a particularly beautiful turn of phrase, perfect metaphor or a sentence that made me laugh out loud. Great insights and a real-life story arc, too (a truly interesting plot! Often sacrificed when the writing and characters are this good). Best book I've read for quite some time. Thank you for the opportunity to read it before its release.

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For fans of Writers and Lovers, this novel about art, class and family is absorbing and wonderfully descriptive. Lee Cole’s page turner still manages to explore and poke fun at current questions concerning style and voice in modern fiction. Definitely a must read.

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Such an amazing book with a unique writing style. Highly recommend this one! Cannot wait to read more by this author!

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This is a quiet little novel with a lot of heart. I was emotionally invested in the protagonist from the start. Loved every page.

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This is such a good book. This is a coming of age book about a very wise young man confronted with his ambivalence about his family, his country, and the region where he has grown up. So much of this resonated with me. I lived in rural Arkansas for four years, and loving/hating a region where you have lived is so palpable in this, as it is in my life.
This is also a book about who owns our life events and stories. That is one of the most painful sections of this, for me. If we share experiences with someone, who owns them and makes art about them?
I have pre-ordered a copy of this for myself. I loved it.

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