Brief synopsis: Ari Mendoza is unsure about the person he is growing up to be. Dante Quintana already knows who he is. Each is struggling to understand his place in the universe while fighting invisible demons—a lost older brother, a lonely world filled with art and poetry. In this coming-of-age tale, two boys living in the world of “almost-men” (213) form an unlikely bond, one that is tested by circumstances and events out of their control. Through each other they learn about friendship, love, and things worth fighting for.

Rating🌴 Island collection

Long story short: The last time I remember staying up all night to read a book was when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out 15 years ago. This is the only other novel since then that turned out to be a real page-turner (and a tearjerker, so keep the Kleenex close).

The themes are complex and mature but the dialogue is simple and youthful, something that I think as adolescents on the cusp of manhood Ari and Dante embody really well: trying to make sense of all the confusing changes happening within and around them.

I enjoyed the first-person narrative because a big part of growing up is reconciling how others see you with how you see yourself, which is largely an introspective journey. Ari tries to harmonize the role he wants to play in his family and in his relationship with Dante, with the roles he thinks others expect him to play.

If you’re looking for an engaging novel featuring POC that confront their sexual and cultural identities, this is it.

Continue reading for a more in-depth review (note: spoilers below).


Long story long: Not wanting things to change but knowing that change is inevitable is such a melancholy realization. The story begins with Ari conscious that everything is changing, but hoping that it won’t, at least for a little longer. “For the music to be over so soon,” he says, “For the music to be over when it had just begun. That was really sad.”

It reminded me of my time in high school. After taking the same classes for four years, after countless study groups and school events, I was only beginning to know my classmates. Then just as we were becoming close friends, we all headed off in different directions. Four years felt like a really short time, and while I was looking forward to the future, a big part of me wanted to hold on to those high school years.

Ari’s character seems similarly torn between wanting to stay a child and wanting to grow up. After a phone call with Dante he thinks wistfully, “For a few minutes I wished that Dante and I lived in the universe of boys instead of the universe of almost-men” (213). Yet he is also impatient to grow up and find himself. “When will I know who I am?” he wonders (148).

This was a such a heartwarming book that three months later I’m still reeling from it. Sáenz has written other novels and short stories, some of which I’m hoping to read after this challenge is over (I’m lookin’ at you Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club).

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Comment below!