Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Genre: Realistic YA, Romance, LGBT, POC
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: February 21st 2012
Hardcover: 359 pages
A lyrical novel about family and friendship from critically acclaimed author Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
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.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did we get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): eBook (Kindle)
Why did we read this book: I had this book on my radar since last year – I saw some really good reviews for it but somehow it just slipped my mind. Until a couple of weeks ago it came into my radar again when it won a ton of awards: Stonewall Book Award (2013), Printz Honor (2013), YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults (Top Ten) (2013), Pura Belpre Author Award (2013)
The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea.
It’s funny how just the other day I was talking about writing craft, the combination of skill and care that is so important when putting together a story and how certain books unfortunately fail in every conceivable way.
It is possible that Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is the antithesis to every single terrible book I’ve read lately. In fact, Aristotle and Dante is the kind of book that gives me hope that the universe might be still be an ok place to live, that publishing is not only a heartless business but also a place where craft still survives and good stories live on. You just need to be able to find them.
And what a find Aristotle and Dante turned out to be.
It’s the story of two friends, Ari and Dante, who meet when they are fifteen, during a summer of utter boredom. Their friendship is a balancing act: sweet and tender, playful and serious, full of intellectual interactions and questioning about life, the universe and everything. It is a beautiful story of friendship – although their friendship does eventually develop into an AWESOME romantic relationship that comes from falling in love with a person you already love so much. I like just-friends story and they are so important but Ari and Dante’s friends-to-lovers story felt so right there is no resentment from this reader.
I wanted to tell them that I’d never had a friend, not ever, not a real one. Until Dante. I wanted to tell them that I never knew that people like Dante existed in the world, people who looked at the stars, and knew the mysteries of water, and knew enough to know that birds belonged to the heavens and weren’t meant to be shot down from their graceful flights by mean and stupid boys. I wanted to tell them that he had changed my life and that I would never be the same, not ever. And that somehow it felt like it was Dante who had saved my life and not the other way around. I wanted to tell them that he was the first human being aside from my mother who had ever made me want to talk about the things that scared me. I wanted to tell them so many things and yet I didn’t have the words. So I just stupidly repeated myself. “Dante’s my friend.”
The story is narrated by Ari and it’s his point of view that colours the narrative. Ari is a loner who likes to wallow in its loneliness and who is in a state of constant anger: at the secrets his family keeps from him, at his father for not being open and talkative. Dante is in a way, his opposite: quick to laugh and play, an artist and philosopher as well as a crier. Except as it turns out, they are not so different after all – and soon Ari learns to love poetry and philosophy and words whilst still being the same questioning, angry Ari (it takes him some time to learn that boys can cry too). The letting go of this anger (for a myriad of reasons) is one of the driving points of the novel and one that comes with a series of moments of self-discovery and life-discovery. It’s very interesting too the way that Ari’s narrative is somewhat unreliable although not on purpose because it is very clear that Ari represses his feelings and don’t tell us how he truly feels about certain things because he doesn’t know them either – but his actions speak more than a thousand words.
Aristotle and Dante is a smart, intelligent, engaging coming-of-age story and a deep, thoughtful exploration of identity and sexuality. It turns out that both Ari and Dante are gay although it takes Ari the whole book to come to terms with it, whereas Dante is much more conformable in his own skin when it comes to his sexual identity. But there are other sides of who they are that are also thoughtfully examined here: both are Mexican-Americans and both ask themselves what does that even mean.
“Maybe I’ll just mown lawns.”
“Too Mexican for you, mom?”
“No. Just too unreliable.”
“Flipping burgers. That’s reliable. Not very imaginative, but reliable. Come to think of it, it’s the perfect job for me. I’m reliable and imaginative.”
She shook her head. “ Are you going to spend your life beating up on yourself?”
“You’re right. Maybe I will take the summer off.”
“You’re in high school, Ari. You’re not looking for a profession. You’re just looking for a way to earn some money. You’re in transition.”
“In transition? What kind of a Mexican mother are you?”
“I am an educated woman. That doesn’t un-Mexicanize me, Ari.”
She sounded a little angry. I loved her anger and wished I had more of it. Her anger was different than mine or my father’s. Her anger didn’t paralize her.
Both Ari and Dante are on the threshold of adulthood and the book is sublimely competent in evidencing those moments when you are trying to define who you are as well as who you want to be and how teenagers feel the need to be treated like people. There is family history and influencing, social restrictions and expectations of what a man should be, violence and bigotry as well as love and acceptance and thematically speaking, this is a book that hits all the right spots. Every character is fantastically portrayed and I just loved how this is also a book about families, about relating to them and especially how finding out who you are does not stop when you become an adult, it is an ever evolving narrative of your own life. There is a lot of care given here to Ari and Dante’s parents as well.
All of that put forth in a way that blew my mind away. Here is where I go back to the issue of writing craft. Because this book? It’s beautifully, impeccably written. The writing is very straightforward, simple and concise. BUT never ever simplistic and one gets the feeling that every word is chosen very precisely, very carefully to create a profoundly affecting story with an intricate narrative. It is a book that trusts its readers too – no pandering here – and there are pages and pages of pure dialogue where the reader must fill the gaps.
This amazing writing skill is also present in terms of “voice”. The story follows the two boys for two years, and the narrative voice matures just as much as the two do – Ari and Dante start very young-sounding and immature then as the story progresses they both sound older.
I think the best thing I can say about the book is how I can see Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe as a book that can be picked for a lit class to be dissected for its craft and examined for its themes BUT only after the reader is able to recover from becoming a blubbering mess of FEELINGS and ensuing powerlessness to form coherent thoughts all because they identify so much with the story.
Aristotle and Dante discovered more than the secrets of the universe – they also discovered the secrets to my reading heart.
Notable Quotes/ Parts:
All afternoon, I sat in that large comfortable chair in Dante’s room and he lay down on his newly made bed. And he read poems. I didn’t worry about understanding them. I didn’t care about what they meant. I didn’t care because what mattered is that Dante’s voice felt real. And I felt real. Until Dante, being with other people was the hardest thing in the world for me. But Dante made talking and living and feeling seem like all those things were perfectly natural. Not in my world, they weren’t. I went home and looked up the word “inscrutable.” It meant something that could not easily be understood. I wrote down all the synonyms in my journal. “Obscure.” “Unfathomable.” “Enigmatic.” “Mysterious.” That afternoon, I learned two new words. “Inscrutable.” And “friend.” Words were different when they lived inside of you.
Rating: 10 – PERFECTION.
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