Standalone by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
My rating: ⭐️⭐️
At first, I thought I was less than impressed because it was super reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, particularly Dandelion Wine. I need to be in a very specific and rare mood to enjoy Dandelion Wine type books. However, as I kept going (and skimming through the first third), I realised that Aristotle’s uneven narration isn’t actually worthy of the comparison. There are lines here and there that shine, but it’s mostly the writing equivalent of stage tricks that one finds in lazy literary fiction. Repetition masquerading as strengthening an observation or impact, over-simplification (at its worst when “depicting” a romantic kiss between any couple), and my favourite: general wheel-spinning.
Like many a disappointing LGBTQ romance with only one character’s perspective, the romance is less romantic than it is distressing. For most of the book, Ari not only denies so much as being attracted to Dante, but genuinely seems to be telling the truth. The 180 turn at the end was simultaneously a relief and a betrayal. It felt like watching someone do a crappy magic trick and hating the entire performance because I knew how it was done.
There’s also a smattering of boring rehashes of things from other similarly plotless gay romance, like sexless female friends, physical assault (no conclusion, because that would look too much like plot and too little like tastelessly trading on the existence of hate crimes), and too-easy acceptance because there’s only a few pages left before the end.
What had the most positive effect on me was when the titular characters talked about being “Mexican enough.” As a mixed race Mexican American, I worry about being perceived as too white. Dante’s worries that he wasn’t Mexican enough made me cry, and Ari’s joy over having a properly Mexican pick-up truck felt super familiar. It wasn’t a major part of the book, and it didn’t always resonate with me, but it was still nice to read it.
This kind of slice of life narrative is not usually my thing. When it’s done badly, it suffers from nothing much going on. Anything that does happen runs the risk of never concluding, underlining the nonexistent plot, or being superfluous. I never liked Ari as a character, even when I sympathised with him, and Dante felt like a good character who was often literally shuffled out of the way. Not very romantic. Even their friendship seemed tenuous and its lifespan can only be explained by the words “author mandate.” I feel like I know what this book wanted to do, and yet I can’t deny that it was executed poorly.