By Leah Greenblatt
January 14, 2020 at 01:08 PM EST
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Knopf

In her reviews of two January novels, EW critic Leah Greenblatt observes how authors Garth Greenwell and Miranda Popkey uniquely and urgently write about desire.

Cleanness, by Garth Greenwell

The nameless protagonist of Greenwell’s prize-winning 2016 debut What Belongs to You returns — still an American teacher adrift in Bulgaria, an obscure, nicotine-fugued blotch on the map of Eastern Europe. He counsels (or attempts to) a young student crushed by unrequited love; attends a festive, wayward street protest in the capital; recounts various sexual encounters sprung from the most masochistic corners of the internet. It’s those rules of engagement that seem to intrigue Greenwell most; the intoxicating and almost painful honesty of his unflinching gaze on desire as “the key to the latch of the self, or the promised key, a key that maybe never turns.” B+

Topics of Conversation, by Miranda Popkey

What do women talk about when we talk about sex? The physical act is a touchstone in Popkey’s lean, bracingly unsentimental debut, but the subtext is everything else: envy, intimacy, loneliness, self-control. In interconnected chapters that travel from a luxe Italian resort at the turn of the millennium to California’s desolate San Joaquin Valley in 2017, Topics’ unnamed narrator inhabits a world where the men turn out to be mostly peripheral: absentee fathers, unwanted exes. But as she explores her own history through a shifting lens of female rivalries and friendships, the book’s surface coolness begins to peel away, revealing the raw, uncommon nerve of a radically honest storyteller. A-

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