Angel Aristotle Mendoza, Ari for short, is a fifteen-year-old loner. He feels like he’s been a loner all his life, like letting people know him and getting to know others is just something he doesn’t do. Part of this might stem from the decade-plus age gap between his three older siblings, part of this might stem from the closed-off vibes he gets from his Vietnam veteran father, part of this might stem from his school teacher mother’s “school teacher” inclinations about getting to know him. But one summer, Ari meets Dante.
What could have started off as just another random encounter with a boy who was just like every other boy changed when Dante offered to teach Ari how to swim. From that first exchange, Ari realized Dante wasn’t like all those other stupid boys who said stupid things. Dante was as extroverted as Ari seemed introverted. Dante used big words, liked art, and read voraciously and those were things that Ari didn’t mind. For one glorious summer, Ari and Dante were best friends. When Dante and his parents left El Paso for Dante’s father’s year-long stint guest teaching in Chicago, they knew things would change, even for best friends. And they do. By the time Dante comes back, the two have done some growing up—literally and figuratively. Dante is coming to terms with his being gay, though he’s only confided this with Ari so far. As for Ari, he is trying to figure out the mysteries of his older brother, who’s been in prison as long as Ari can remember, and his aloof father. Not even a year apart could split these two friends up, but there is an undeniable distance between them now.
When Dante lands in the hospital, though, it’s up to Ari to close that bit of distance—all he has to do is see what’s been there from the very beginning.
I enjoyed this book a lot. I found it a quick read; most of the chapters are super short—some as short as a few lines. It’s all told from Ari’s perspective and I liked seeing things from his point of view. His voice felt straight-forward and genuine. Being fifteen is full of conflicting feelings about a lot of things and you definitely feel Ari’s conflicts—over all sorts of things. I certainly found aspects of Ari’s character very identifiable, like how he just wanted to be left alone and for people take his good deeds and his not-so-good deeds in stride. I sympathized with his frustration when said deeds get dragged up time after time and how his parents and friends feel compelled to talk about it. In that regard, I thought Alire Sáenz captured broody teenager stuff rather successfully.
The interactions between Dante and Ari are, from the very start, charmingly quaint and quirky. Even as their relationship changes over the book and distances open and close and open between them, they manage to communicate with each other—if not on The Big Issues, then at least in ways that reaffirms that they are, in fact, friends. I also loved reading the dialogue between Ari and his mother. The dynamic between these two is just so delightfully bittersweet (but more sweet than bitter and this develops fantastically throughout the book) and I loved watching Ari, who is more than a decade younger than his siblings, learn how to really talk with both his mother and his father.
Here’s the conversation that Dante and Ari have when they meet the very first time at the public pool. Ari’s killing time at the pool because it’s summer and hot even though he can’t swim, and Dante is a swimmer at the pool to practice his sport:
…I just kept to myself and sort of floated along [in the pool]. Not that I was having fun.
That’s when I heard his voice kind of squeaky. “I can teach you how to swim.”
I moved over to the side of the pool and stood up in the water, squinting into the sunlight. He sat down on the edge of the pool. I looked at him suspiciously. If a guy was offering to teach me how to swim, then for sure he didn’t have a life. Two guys without a life? How much fun could that be?
I had a rule that it was better to be bored by yourself than to be bored with someone else. I pretty much lived and died by that rule. Maybe that’s why I didn’t have any friends.
He looked at me. Waiting. And then he asked again. “I can teach you how to swim, if you want.”
I kind of liked his voice. He sounded like he had a cold, you know like he was about to lose his voice. “You talk funny,” I said.
“Allergies,” he said.
“What are you allergic to?”
“The air,” he said.
That made me laugh.
“My name’s Dante,” he said.
That made me laugh harder. “Sorry,” I said.
“It’s okay. People laugh at my name.”
“No, no,” I said. “See, it’s just that my name’s Aristotle.”
And here’s one between Ari and his mother (they have a joke about her subscribing to a Fascist type of parenting):
I had to take my mom out for a drive before she’d let me go out [driving the truck] on my own. “You drive a little fast,” she said.
“I’m sixteen,” I said. “And I’m a boy.”
She didn’t say anything. But then she said, “If I even suspect that you’ve taken one sip of alcohol and driven this truck, I’m going to sell it.”
For some reason that made me smile. “That’s not fair. Why should I have to pay for the fact that you have a suspicious mind? Like that’s my fault.”
She just looked at me. “Fascists are like that.”
We both smiled. “No drinking and driving.”
“What about drinking and walking?”
“None of that either.”
“I guess I knew that.”
As far as the M/M aspect of this goes—I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I will say that it mirrors my thoughts on how Ari and his parents interacted: it is quirky and charming, bittersweet, but ultimately more sweet than bitter. Dante is definitely (obviously) the more outspoken of the two. His home life and relationship to his parents has always been very open and loving (in contrast to Ari’s whose home life is certainly loving, but part of the problem is that the three members living in the same household—Ari, his mom, and his dad—all subscribe to the Strong Silent Type about issues that are emotionally hard, particularly: the war and the in absentia elder brother) so Dante comes clean about his inclinations pretty early on. Ari, on the other hand, has as much reticence about sex and sexuality as he does about everything else in life…even when he’s with Dante. I will say this, I was certainly not disappointed by the ending.