The problem with my life was that it was someone else's idea.
This is how Aristotle ("Ari") begins the story of how he and Dante discovered the secret of the universe. It's a big claim to make, especially for a narrator who is fifteen when we meet him and seventeen by the end of the story. A tall order for two fifteen-year-old Mexican-American boys living in late 1980's El Paso, Texas. But in the end, the "secret of the universe" that they discover is one most of us discover at roughly that age: mostly, that all 17-year-olds are trying to find a world and a version of themselves that they can feel some sense of ownership toward.
Ari's story feels so intensely genuine. Though it could have felt dated, the few references to the year are among the only things that strongly place this book in any time at all. Ari is simultaneously younger than I remember being at fifteen and exactly as old as I thought I was.
This is so much more than a teenage-boys-as-best-friends book. I won't give away the ending, partly because it's moving and partly because I don't want to overemphasize it because, while I think it's important to tell this story in the way it was told, I don't think the final discovery is the most important one. The secret of the universe isn't in the conclusion, it's in the process. Ari (and, alongside him, Dante) go through the process of becoming themselves, and it feels unbelievably true.
In many ways, I got the same kind of feeling reading this book as I did reading Code Name Verity. It's not often that fictional characters explore friendship and identity so sincerely, making that exploration into a story that manages to avoid self-absorption.
Because this is a slower-paced story, be prepared to need big chunks of time to read it. I say this not because it's dull, but because you really need to get yourself nice and immersed in the narrative to appreciate the emotional depth of everything going on. Sometimes that ends up being a barrier for me, but in this case, it just made me very reluctant to step away and try to readjust to the real world, which is usually the marker of something stellar. I rarely give out five-star ratings, but this was definitely one of them.