Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Book Review: "At the Bottom of Everything" by Ben Dolnick

Adam and Thomas were best friends when they were growing up in Washington, DC. Thomas was one of the brightest kids in their prep school—quirky, unique, aloof—and Adam welcomed the opportunity to try and crack his shell. Plus, Adam envied Thomas' stable home life, a mother committed to social justice and a father who values his intelligence.

Their friendship was fairly intense until high school, when Adam began focusing on sports, girls, and parties, and Thomas continued down his own path. Yet partly out of obligation and partly out of nostalgia, the boys still got together briefly, and their encounters became focused more on mischief and pranks. One night, one of their schemes goes dangerously out of control, and the aftereffects cause their friendship to end. And while Adam can move beyond the incident, it affects Thomas far more intensely.

Fast forward 10 years, and Adam's life isn't quite going in the direction he had hoped. Lonely and depressed after his breakup with his girlfriend, bored in his job as an academic tutor, he begins a brief affair with one of his students' mothers which, as you might imagine, doesn't end well. He is unsure what to do with his life or what to make of himself. A chance encounter with Thomas' mother brings his former friendship back into his mind, especially as she asks for Adam's help to try and find Thomas, who has apparently disappeared to India.

"'What I really want to make sure you know is just that your old friend, skinny Thomas Pell, is drowning. We all are, and we're reaching out to you for help.'"

But Adam thinks, "'Your old friend is drowning.' Well, so was I."

With nothing to keep him in the U.S., Adam embarks on a journey to find and rescue his old friend, and follows his trail to India. But when he discovers why Thomas has made the journey, and how he has changed in 10 years, Adam realizes that bringing Thomas home is just the tip of the iceberg. And along the way, Adam confronts some of his own mental and emotional issues, and he realizes he is as much in need of rescue as Thomas may be.

How far would you go for an old friend? How much do the events of our childhood affect us later in life? Ben Dolnick's At the Bottom of Everything is a book about finding yourself in the midst of trying to help someone else, and how much our lives can turn on just one single incident.

I really enjoyed the beginning of this book as Adam reflected on both his current situation and reminisced about his friendship with Thomas, but I felt as if once he went to India, the book lost its focus. A great deal of time was spent on spiritual issues, as Thomas had sought the guidance of a guru in India, but it almost seemed like a wholly separate story than what the book initially was about. I thought Thomas in particular was a fascinating and heartbreaking character, and the way Dolnick illustrated Thomas' mental state, and how it affected both of his parents, was tremendously well done.

What I've liked about Dolnick's earlier books is his ability to capture everyday situations and "regular" people, and make you care about them. He does that in At the Bottom of Everything, although the book loses its way just as its narrator is trying to find his.

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