Author: Benjamin Alire Saenz
Genre: Contemporary, Romance
Publication date: 21st February 2012
Read: 17th – 19th January 2017
“I got to thinking that poems were like people. Some people you got right off the bat. Some people you just didn’t get – and never would get.”
I’d seen people raving about this book, so maybe I’d pitched my expectations too high, but honestly I was disappointed.
The story follows Aristotle ‘Ari’ Mendoza as he tries to find happiness and figure out who he is. His view of the world changes when he meets Dante – lively, emotional and open, Dante is everything Ari isn’t. But their friendship blossoms, and as they discover more about each other they begin to realise that their differences are what make them such good friends.
The main issue I had with this novel was Ari himself. I wanted to like his character, but his constant complaining and woe-is-me attitude just didn’t make me warm to him. He pretty much spends the first twenty pages complaining about things he doesn’t like, which didn’t make for a great opener.
I understood what Alire Saenz was trying to do: to give us a window into the confusion, angry and unhappiness of a teenage boy – who often doesn’t understand why he confused, angry and unhappy – but I just felt it wasn’t executed as well as it could have been. Alire Saenz’s writing style is artistic and builds thoroughly detailed characters, but there were times when Ari droned on for two pages and the potential to turn this into a more insightful piece of narrative was lost.
If I’m honest, I think I would have liked the novel more if Dante had been the main character; I found him far more engaging and likeable from the outset and his quirky charisma only grew on me as I continued reading.
But maybe that’s the point. This is a very character-driven novel (I’d say there are only two or three main events that make up the plot) and the author seems to experiment with how well a story can be told from the perspective of a character who isn’t the shining protagonist we’re all used to.
One great aspect of this book was its diversity; the main characters are both Mexican and one bisexual and one gay. (For most of the book I read Ari as bisexual because he kisses women and talks about enjoying it and doesn’t seem to have much preference for men until later on). A large number of the supporting characters are Mexican and I loved reading about the culture and traditions that Alire Saenz included. The novel is also own voices because the author is Mexican and gay.
Although the novel grew on me as I progressed through it, I still felt like I was waiting for something more. I enjoyed the philosophy woven into the story and the character development, but at times I felt that the author drew out thought-provoking moments until they lost their shine. I’m also not convinced by the ending because, while the idea was sweet, having no idea you were in love with someone for over a year seems a little unrealistic to me.