“Ari is 15 years old as the summer of 1987 settles in. He is growing up in El Paso, Texas. In some ways, he has a great life. He is a Mexian American boy whose parents both love him. His mother is a social studies teacher, and his dad is a Vietnam vet, who still struggles with what he experienced during the war. He also has two much older sisters who have already started families of their own.
He also struggles with the fact that he is uncomfortable with talking about himself or the troubles around him. In reality, there are only two people (both girls) at school that he could even consider to be friends, though they are more acquaintances than friends. Some of his challenges with openness might be tied to mystery of his older brother Bernardo (as well as his father's quietness due to his war experiences). Bernardo has almost been erased from the family home. There are no pictures of him, and no one ever speaks of him. All that Ari knows is that Bernardo did something when Ari was just a young boy, and Bernardo has been in prison since.
Aristotle's life starts on a pathway to change when his mother suggests he learn how to swim. Ari heads down to the local public pool and meets Dante, another Mexican American boy who was at the pool. Dante is different from anyone else he has know. For one things, he talks all the time, and he is comfortable talking about anything and everything. Dante is also much lighter and more effete than Ari, but that doesn't prevent the two boys from being extremely close ... best friends.
As summer is coming to a close on a rainy afternoon, Dante ends up walking into the middle of the road to move a bird who has settled there just as a car approaches. Dante did not have enough time to move. Fortunately, Ari leaped in to push him out of the way, but that led to his own legs being run over.
As school starts, Dante heads to Chicago because his dad is going to spend a year teaching at a college there. Ari starts healing from a pair of broken legs, and the two continue with their friendship through letters. Dante continues to "overshare," at least to Ari, and it becomes clear that his feelings for Ari are more than just friendship.
What is interesting is that Ari is not really thrown by that other to clearly state that he doesn't have those feelings in return. He likes girls, particuarly one girl he is going to school with. Things continue from there as both boys start coming to terms with their approaching adulthood.
The writing in this book is actually really strong, and I could not help myself being drawn to the characters so I could know what was going to happen to them. Saenz's past experience as a poet is evident in the rich descriptions that pop up throughout the whole book. I am really glad that I ended up reading this one as I found it tremendously moving.
I do have to wonder about the audience, though. The book is written primarily for older teens, and I am not sure they would stick it out until the end, which is amazingly powerful. The book is quite philosophical and really focuses on characters thinking about rather than doing things. That makes for a slower read and one that requires more work than many others. I do think it is worth it, but I wonder if the adolescent readers will feel the same way.”