Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Published: February 21st, 2012 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Source: local library
Synopsis: Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.
My thoughts: I’m very partial to queer YA lit, so I was fairly certain I was going to like Aristotle and Dante, and I was not disappointed. These were two characters with whom I enjoyed spending time. This novel was one of the 2012 new releases I was sorry to not have gotten to when I looked back on my favorites of the 2012 releases I had read. When the Youth Media Awards were announced recently, I was thrilled it won a Stonewall Award, Pura Belpré Award, and was named a Printz honor book. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was a surprisingly uplifting and heartwarming book that I hope many others will read and enjoy.
(Be forewarned: this review might end up being kind of spoiler-y, because not a lot happens in this book in terms of plot; all the action is internal. I’m not sure I can talk about this book without giving away these details, and it’s very much a book I want to talk about.)
Aristotle and Dante go to different schools—Ari, the public high school, and Dante, the all boys private school. Neither of them have many friends or fit in with their peers. They meet at the pool in the summer. Aristotle can’t swim, and Dante volunteers to teach him. They quickly connect with one another, though both are outsiders in very different sorts of ways. Through very simple language and very honest dialogue, Saénz developed this friendship into something more, something I hoped would flourish. As these boys read poetry, escaped into the desert to watch the stars, saved birds and dogs and each other, I was cheering for them.
The first person narration of Aristotle, a Mexican-American teenager growing up in 1980s El Paso, worked for me, though I can see how it would be difficult for some readers to connect with Ari. He’s distant, and doesn’t always acknowledge his feelings to himself, let alone the reader, but then every so often some observation or insight would slip through the cracks and my heart would just ache for him. His inability to connect with his father, a Vietnam War veteran, and his anger at his family for refusing to talk about his much older brother, who is in prison but might as well have never existed, pulled on my heartstrings. These difficulties, alongside the normal teenage concerns, made him a compelling character.
My heart ached for Dante, too, especially when he sent letters to Ari that he rarely answered (yes, this is the 80s. Kids write letters, not IMs or text messages, to each other). He was so open and loving, so unapologetic about who he was, it was impossible not to care for him.
Not only was the friendship (and romance) well-developed, I enjoyed the portrayal of two different Mexican-American families and their dynamics. Some aspects of the story I found difficult to believe, but these didn’t at all detract from my enjoyment of the story. Since each character felt so genuine, I was willing to accept some plot points that seemed a little too perfect.
Unlike my other favorite coming of age (and coming out) novel from last year, The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth, which I gushed about here when I first read it, and again, in a photo essay on The Hub when it was on the short list for the Morris Award, I feel like Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz is much more accessible to teenagers. The simpler language, short chapters, and more streamlined story (and happier, romantic ending) will win over readers who couldn’t connect with Cameron. This novel was far more tame in terms of its treatment of the same subject matter.
Even readers who are not into queer lit or who don’t want to read about Mexican-American boys in the 1980s should give this book a try. It had the feeling of a contemporary and unexpected depth without being preachy or issue-y. This novel is honest, heartfelt, and makes me want to believe in love. If my opinion and the three awards it garnered this year aren’t enough to convince you to read it, check out these second opinions!
Catie at The Readventurer: “This book completely won me over. Initially I did feel that same disconnect with the writing, but it grew on me. His prose is mainly comprised of short, sometimes awkward sentences that don’t always flow together. But then he throws in a passage that’s just so naked in its sincerity, so honest, that it feels like a punch to the gut.”
L. Lee Butler for NPR: “If you’re anything like me, your heart will be in your throat through the final third of the book, hoping against hope for the joy that these characters deserve with each other.”
Bookshelves of Doom: “Sáenz clearly has confidence in his characters, their story, and in his readers, because he never tips his hand. Ari is Ari, from the first page to the last, and Ari is the opposite of an open book… which, depending on taste, could definitely make for a frustrating reading experience.”