This novel pulled me in slowly, inexorably, towards the final epiphanic moment when Aristotle and Dante discover the secrets of their universe. While the novel is ostensibly about Ari and Dante, it is told in the first-person, in Ari’s voice. It begins with a litany that most of us will recognize:
“One summer night I fell asleep, hoping the world would be different when I woke. In the morning, when I opened my eyes, the world was the same. …
I was fifteen.
I was bored.
I was miserable.” (5)
The teenaged voice, full of not so much angst as self-doubt and insecurity, is a voice I have heard both from inside and from my teenaged son: being a teen is hard, especially when you are not like other boys. That it takes Ari the full course of the novel to figure out who he is speaks to Sáenz’s understanding of adolescence—and especially adolescent boys. That Ari continually denies about himself what others around him see as truth is equally realistic and engaging. We like Ari, despite his moods and doubts, and we—like his friend Dante, and both their sets of parents—want to see him happy, self-aware, and secure in himself. It is a long, hard road he walks.
The path Sáenz takes him on is fairly simple, and episodic, as befits the tale of anyone’s highschool experience. Day-to-day existence fills the boys’ minds: trips to the swimming pool where they met, hanging out together, dealing with the inevitable bullies who stalk those who are different in any way… Yet their relationship is complicated by a number of small issues, the most significant being their inherent differences as individuals: Dante is a vivacious, outgoing, artistic young man in contrast to Ari’s introspective shyness. Where Dante’s parents are academics, having struggled against prejudice to achieve their professional situations, Ari’s family is more traditionally Hispanic; both boys struggle with their identities as Latin Americans in a predominantly white society. Ari struggles, too, with the bigger question of his older brother: a brother he can barely remember, who is in prison for a crime of violence, about whom the family never speaks. And life goes on. Until the day Ari saves Dante from being hit by a car, and ends up in the hospital himself, with both legs broken. This changes their relationship significantly, and Ari is eventually forced to deal with who he really is as a person, to stop trying to be the hyper-masculine Latino he thinks—wrongly—that his extended family wants him to be.
Sáenz has created a cast of wonderfully crafted individuals to support his two main characters: the families and other members of Ari and Dante’s community all behave realistically and consistently—whether good or bad, informed or ignorant. Regardless of where in the world one is, Sáenz’s novel suggests, it still takes a village to raise a child—or children. Aristotle and Dante discover the secrets of the universe as much through the impositions and interventions of others as through their own active investigating of their world. Their lives are—appropriately—as much about reacting as acting, and this is perhaps what gives the novel its intense sense of verisimilitude. I have seldom been as gripped by two male teen characters as I was by Ari and Dante; regardless of your age, gender, or ethnicity, the pathos of Sáenz’s story may move you to tears.