...exacting, beautifully textured ... If economic class is the third rail of American life, then Cole eases his hand out, gently, to touch it, his realism a meld of Richard Russo and Anne Tyler by way of Sally Rooney ... While Pop, Cort and Owen form a fraternity on the skids, it’s a thrill — a relief — to read a writer who approaches his male characters with generosity and intuition, steering blessedly free of caricature ... As with Helen Frankenthaler’s canvases, Groundskeeping achieves poise and uplift ... The novel’s not only a forensic examination of our toxic politics, it’s also a sly sendup of literary culture, a conveyor belt of M.F.A. programs and prizes and teaching gigs ... A sterling novel that presages a major career, Groundskeeping puts a fresh spin on the divided self adrift in a divided nation.
Cole has a sharp eye for the way physical surroundings reflect their inhabitants’ characters and circumstances ... Given a novel so satisfyingly rich in themes and details, a review can only touch briefly on some of its many virtues ... Cole writes about lives damaged beyond repair and the accommodations people make to endure them with sensitivity and understanding, qualities he shares with his protagonist. Owen is entirely believable as a developing writer, jotting down his recollections and observations as the building blocks of his project to become an artist and a better human being. Alma is depicted with equal subtlety and generosity; their relationship drives the plot and brings the novel to a fitting conclusion. Groundskeeping is very fine work indeed from an exciting new voice.
Rarely, if ever...have I been as enthusiastic as I am for Groundskeeping, a timely debut novel by an important new voice for Kentucky, and American, literature ... Groundskeeping has plenty of conflicts, but it also is a memorable love story ... From time to time, Cole’s prose is achingly right ... Since the story is told from Owen’s perspective, we get fewer insights into the minds of those around him. But his own wisdom, which develops as the book progresses, is on the mark, and sometimes profound ... Surprises abound in Cole’s book, but not predictable ones. And you will have to read it to discover what they are. And with Groundskeeping, this young man joins a pantheon of living Kentucky writers including Bobbie Ann Mason, Wendell Berry and Sena Jeter Naslund.
Cole opts to play it safe at the sentence, largely avoiding any sort of dynamic risk-taking in a prioritization of clear, straightforward storytelling. While he is certainly successful there, the byproduct is a book that, while replete with big ideas and a well-developed conception, offers little to challenge, enthrall, or excite at the base unit of fiction ... The strongest portions of Groundskeeping are the depictions of the physical world. Cole relies on his considerable skill with detail and ability to portray middle America, and his small Kentucky college and Owen’s home life feel real and rich. It is a part of the country and culture infrequently explored in fiction, and there is a refreshing honesty and sensibility found in Cole’s comfort with that part of the world. Owen’s budding relationship with Alma, too, is at its best in-scene, when Cole moves away from explanation and towards rendition ... But even the best of these moments—James is a successful secondary character who is able to effectively act on the plot while challenging his traditional archetypes—are often short and somewhat malnourished, while many of them fall flat and clichéd. Cole seems reluctant to truly explore the themes of racial and social inequality that abound in a narrative set in Kentucky during the Trump years and peopled by characters of radically different socio-economic backgrounds ... Groundskeeping will divide reactions to it sharply between the reader who enjoys an easy, effortless experience and those who crave a work of more energy and audacity.
Every character in this book felt so much like someone I’ve known ... more than a simple love story it is also a pitch perfect exploration of the nuanced ways race and class form the boundaries of relationships in these communities. I laughed, I cheered, I cringed with recognition, I shared the characters’ pains and sorrows, and I absolutely could not put this book down.
Cole’s nimble debut combines elements of Southern fiction, the campus novel, and youthful romance ... Cole fills his novel with a gallery of fascinating supporting characters ... In the end, this is the strongest story about young writers in love since Andrew Martin’s Early Work.
Charming ... Cole’s novel is more than a love story or a coming-of-age tale. Written with superb attention to detail and subtle emotional complexities, the book also offers a lovingly nuanced look at America—its longtime residents and recent immigrants; its ramshackle rural beauty, urban revival, and suburban safety; and its generous opportunities for reinvention. In the end, it is a love letter to home ... Perceptive and endearing, this novel signals the arrival of a talented new voice in fiction.