One of my favourite books I read last year was Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s beautiful Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. I just fell in love with the soft, intimate voice that Alire Sáenz had, and the story really touched some personal themes from my own life. Consequently, I decided to take a look at some more of his work, but this time in the realm of different subject matter (though I believe all would be considered within the young-adult genre).
The first, a novel called He Forgot to Say Goodbye, sad some of those delicate elements that I fell in love with in Alire Sáenz’s writing, but I had a little bit of trouble really connecting with the story. Told from the perspective of two young men (Ram and Jake) who are both from very different walks of life, dealing with different personal issues, but both contemplating the fact that their fathers were not present in their lives and how this fact may have shaped their lives and personalities in the end.
One of the young men, Ram, is from a middle-class Mexican background, with a delightful character to be found in both his mother and his aunt, dealing with issues surrounding his brother’s drug use. Ram has an interesting relationship with his best friend, Alejandra, who I was not sure who I ultimately felt about as a character: sometimes she felt too pushy with Ram, and at other times, she felt like she was strong and working with her own struggles as well. For some reason, however, I felt like her character became a bit too central, especially when she met Jake, and she became almost the entire object of his attention.
The other boy, Jake, is from a more affluent up bringing, struggling in his relationship with his mother and stepfather. Jake seems to be very conscious of the world around him, yet I can see how some people may not feel for him and his issues as I am reminded of a girl in one of my counseling classes who said she may struggle with working with people who seem so privileged. Yet, no matter a persons upbringing or how privileged they may be, this does not invalidate their experiences or mean their pain isn’t real. And honestly, I had a hard time liking Jake’s mother in the slightest and felt for him (though I wonder if his mother was fully developed and not just a caricature of a character in some ways?)
Truth be told, there was not a huge plot involved in this novel, as a lot of it was introspective and reflective on the parts of the two boys, though there was some movement in terms of their different personal relationships. One of the strongest aspects of the novel was how the two boys’ lives intermingled and their interactions with one another, so it was a shame that these interactions and their relationship was not given as much room to develop. I would have liked to have seen more of that, as I feel like it could have been very interesting and helped their characters develop more as well. Ultimately, tone of this book, even if I got a little irritated by Jake often using his signature phrases repeatedly to the point where it was like, okay, I get it, he’s a teenager with signature terms, can we chill out a bit? Despite this, I found the novel easy to read, I just wanted there to be a bit more, and found I was not as drawn in by the characters as much I would have liked.
The second novel in this Benjamin Alire Sáenz double-header is entitled Last Night I Sang to the Monster, and focuses on a young boy named Zach in a rehabilitation facility, as he struggles with remembering how exactly he got there, and dealing with a lot of repressed memories and trauma. We also get to meet some of the other patients at the facility working through various issues (mostly addictions like Zach), such as Rafael, who is an older gentleman that is a roommate and close friend to Zach. We also get to meet Zach’s main therapist, Adam, who works with him both in group sessions and individually throughout the course of the novel.
Similarly to the other books I’ve read from Alire Sáenz, this novel has a very gentle way of being, that truly tries to capture the nature of human emotions and pain, and succeeds quite well in these areas. I just found there to be some issues with awkward phrasing and language used in trying to be poetic and discuss these emotions, which put me off a little. I also feel as though my background in studying counseling and therapy for the past few years came as both a positive force in appreciating some aspects of this book, while making me critical and skeptical of others.
On the one hand, I think the examination of how different people deal with trauma and pain, and how some are willing and able to work through it while others aren’t is very well depicted: the place of dreams in a person’s mind and experience is also what some styles of therapy likes to focus on, so having Zach’s dreams be a part of it was definitely relevant. I also liked how there was the inclusion of some art therapy aspects (my specialization), though these parts weren’t fully developed and I know I personally would have led them or dealt with debriefing of pieces in a different manner. That being said, while I recognize that there are different styles of counseling and therapy (and some practitioners are comfortable with certain things while others aren’t) I couldn’t help but question some of the methods that were depicted or some of the things said by the professionals in this novel. That is, I would never do or say these things or even be comfortable thinking about it. But, maybe that’s me being nit-picky and letting my own levels of comfort and personal style get in the way of how I see things in these areas now.
My other conflict of thought was in the depiction of trauma, suppression of memories, and the process of remembering. I feel like this was done well and showed how sometimes we can just push things so far down that they tear us up inside without us even realizing, because we feel as though remembering and being aware of what happened will hurt us even more. The process of healing though, seemed a bit quick to me. Both Rafael and Zach have huge breakthroughs of remembering or being able to talk about things that happened to them, and while I know that being able to express these things can be very helpful, it almost came across as though as soon as they did this first step, it was smooth sailing to healing and coming to terms with things. But healing and recovery does not occur in a straight line, and awareness is just the first step of the work, the processing, and the moving forward: healing is more like a spiral, where sometimes this takes you forwards and sometimes backwards, though you are still moving and working on moving outwards. Therefore I was a little bit conflicted about the ending of this novel and how the lives and healing of certain characters played out. I was still, however, very appreciative of the depth of emotion displayed throughout the novel, and how pain and struggling was treated not as a weakness but as something that we as humans may face and have a hard time dealing with, yet we are still capable of working through and coming to the other side of in our own time and in our own ways.
So, I guess in a way both He Forgot to Say Goodbye and Last Night I Sang to the Monster had their strong points, and had a really soft nature to how they approached different topics. But ultimately, there was a bit of a disconnect for me in some areas in each, which stopped me from absolutely loving either. In that way, I would give both novels 3/5 stars.