Elijah and Danny are brothers. Elijah is the dreamy brother, who loves to hang out with his friends at boarding school and has endless conversations with strangers. Danny is the elder brother --- hardworking, serious, and completely devoted to his first job in advertising. Elijah thinks of Danny as being a sellout, a phony, and a liar. Danny thinks of Elijah as being a penniless, pothead fallback, with no sense of reality. Both brothers have forgotten the affection they once had for each other.
In an attempt to get the two siblings to communicate again, their parents send them on a tour of Italy. An impressionistic blend of novel, travelogue and poetry, ARE WE THERE YET? is about the brothers' travels through Venice, Florence and Rome. Travel, particularly in a foreign country, has a disorienting quality that makes things seem simultaneously immediate and very faraway. David Levithan captures this paradox, as well as the strange coincidences and people the two brothers encounter along the way. He covers the major sites of each city, along with minor sites important to each character.
Notably, Levithan writes about the remnants of once-thriving Jewish communities in each city. When the brothers visit the infamous Jewish ghetto in Venice, immortalized by Shakespeare's Shylock, they read that 8,000 Italian Jews were sent to concentration camps during the Holocaust. Only eight returned. Later, a guide notes that the Venetian Jewish community now numbers about 600 in a city of approximately 63,000. Doubly an outsider, as an American-Jew in an Italian city filled with some of the most famous Christian artwork in the world, Danny starts to question his place in the world, and a system of values that has left him largely alone.
When he and Elijah fight about a woman Elijah meets at the scene of an accident, the brothers separate, leaving them both truly alone in a foreign country. Slowly each comes to realize that despite the pleasures and autonomy of being alone, "it's good to share a life." Elijah realizes that he isolates himself through casual relationships and does not express his feelings for the people he truly loves. Danny sees that his work has come between him and the people who love him most. The brothers reunite in Rome. They share a serendipitous sunrise at the Parthenon, followed by a tour of all the sites in the movie Roman Holiday, which they are surprised to discover they both love.
In a conversation between Danny and one of his childhood friends, Levithan touches on the difficulty of being brothers, when the process of growing up interferes with the bond they once shared:
"Brothers are not like sisters. They don't call each other every week. Will you be there for him if he needs you? Of course. Should you love him without question? Absolutely. But those are the easy things. Do you make him a large part of your life, an equal to a wife or a best friend? At the beginning, when you're kids, the answer is often yes. But when you get to high school, or older? Do you tell him everything? Do you let him know who you really are? The answer is usually no."
ARE WE THERE YET? not only explores the dynamic of accumulating distance between brothers, but also looks at the way Danny and Elijah begin to close the gap as they gain maturity. The optimism that is part of Levithan's other novels saturates this book, offering the following advice for relationships: "Don't go for normal. Go for happy. Go for what you want it to be instead of settling for what is."
--- Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood