Friday, March 14, 2014

Review Day - At the Bottom of Everything by Ben Dolnick

I saw a deliver truck for Scholastic Books the other day.  I LOVED the Weekly Reader (why, yes, i was a bit of a dorky kid).  In addition to the "magazine" portion, there was always the opportunity to order books and get a prize for doing so.  Think about how different America would look if they took off as well as Happy Meals did!  Anyway, I don't think I was a materialistic kid and I would struggle to fill up a birthday or holiday list, but I never struggled when it came to picking out books!

Anyway, time for a book review from your Ramblin' Reader:

The early chapters of this novel alternate between protagonist Adam's childhood and his mid-20s.  In his youth, he became close friends with Thomas, a bit of an outcast and a strange kid.  Adam also becomes close to Thomas's very academic parents.  As they get older, however, Adam drifts into new circles and begins to leave Thomas and their friendship behind.  He just outgrows it and yearns for girls, sports, and popularity.  This process speeds up after the boys are involved in a frightening and guilt-provoking act.  

In Adam's twenties, he's working as a tutor and, having recently been dumped after a long relationship, begins an affair with a client's mother.  He and Thomas haven't talked in years when he hears from Thomas's parents that Thomas has gone missing in India.  This followed a mental and emotional breakdown that caused Thomas's parents to bring him home from college and generally pushed him off his expected-success trajectory.  Eventually, after a few emails pass between the old friends, Adam agrees to go find Thomas, leading to a large portion of the book dealing with his trip, a cult-like philosophic movement, and the search to find Thomas and save him, mostly from himself.

I enjoyed the early portions of the book.  I liked watching the friendship between the boys develop and I liked "meeting" Thomas's family.  There were definitely moments i could relate to as a child who felt lonely and different.  I even enjoyed the present-day scenes in the early chapters...not as much as the childhood ones, but it still held me.  However, I could barely get myself through the India chapters.  The prose was readable but I just didn't care and didn't find much of it believable...I do understand the power of the childhood friendship, but I just don't see Adam taking the steps he does and I don't buy the happenings in the India chapters.  When I don't care, it is almost always a death knell for a book in my mind and that applies here.  I will say I did like the very ending.

Overall: Good portrait of a childhood friendship and its evolution, but lost me when the setting shifted.  The search for his friend and for redemption from a youthful tragedy was slow-going since I wasn't invested in the characters or their outcome.  Two stars.  Review copy provided by Pantheon (publisher).

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