Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Published By: Simon & Schuster
Date Published: February 21, 2012
Genre: YA fiction, LGBT+ fiction
My Rating: ★★★★☆
Format: Audiobook (read by Lin-Manuel Miranda)
Recommended for: Anyone looking for a feel-good coming of age tale with philosophical nuggets of wisdom for everyone.
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. (via Goodreads)
I can’t tell if every book I’ve read so far has been truly good, or if I’ve severely lowered my expectations after a year of disappointing reads last year. Seriously, last year was ROUGH for me… But I digress. I fell hopelessly in love with Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe about 1/4 of the way in, and I never fell out of it. Which is always a good thing, right? Right.
Let’s start with the good. The writing style was absolutely beautiful. Sáenz did an amazing job making me believe in the story he was sharing. He tells a wonderful coming-of-age tale of two young boys on the cusp of adulthood who are just trying to figure out how to deal with being in that awkward in-between moment of life where you’re not yet an adult but you’re not still a little boy either. Now, I’m usually not one for elevated language, but this book had just the right amount for me. I mean, come on. It’s in the name. If nothing else, everyone should expect some less-dense dabble in philosophy to come in sooner or later. Every description was so expertly crafted that I was grinning at my computer screen quite often during the work day.
So, I renamed myself Ari. If I switched the letters, my name was “Air.” I thought it might be a great thing to be the air. I could be something and nothing at the same time. I could be necessary and also invisible. Everyone would need me and no one would be able to see me.
There were quite a few nuggets of wisdom sprinkled throughout the book that I will never forget. To be honest, maybe I had to be in a certain mood to be able to appreciate that “Sometimes pain was like the storm that came out of nowhere.”
And the characters… good God. If you thought I wasn’t going to sit here and fangirl about the characters, you don’t know me at all. I am a big supporter of diverse characters (surprise surprise), so I admit that I initially picked this book up because it’s told from the perspective of two Mexican-American teens exploring not only their sexuality but their place in the world. I was living for it. Both of these characters are incredibly flawed (in the good way we love).
Ari is the loner who basks in his loneliness and claims to prefer it. However, you can always tell that all he really wanted/needed was the exact opposite. His inexperience with others doesn’t go unnoticed and is part of the reason why he doesn’t know how to handle Dante or explain the feelings he ends up developing for him. Dante, on the other hand, is such a complex being. On the outside, he’s the bubbly, optimistic guy who enjoys reading the classics and is in a constant war with wearing shoes (don’t ask). On the inside, though, he feels that he just isn’t quite “Mexican enough.” Both boys fight their own demons behind the scenes making them some of the most human I’ve read in a while.
Aside from the mains (because a book does not function on them alone), the minor characters were also well thought out with their own backstory that determined their actions (and inactions). In particular, each set of parents (A BOOK WITH PARENTS?! NO WAY!) brought their own personality to the table– especially the fathers which is such a fucking rarity. It was all just… UGH. I could go on for days. But I won’t.
Now, on to the not-so-good. There isn’t much that I found problematic with this book in terms of the big things– writing style, character development, and plot. However, I needed more in some areas.
- More closure with Ari’s brother in prison. Ari spends literally THE ENTIRE book complaining about his family’s erasure of his older brother, Bernardo, and then… it sort of falls flat once he finds out everything about him. So much more could have been done with that if it had been revealed a smidgen earlier. Instead, that whole plot point just wrapped itself up way too quickly which is a damn shame. Once we, the reader, actually find out about the crimes that led to Bernardo’s imprisonment, I expected a hell of a lot more than “oh, we put up a picture in the living room of him now.” Especially because the crime is a doozy and needed to be talked about at least a little.
- More with Dante’s conflict with being a real Mexican. The topic is never really explored what exactly it meant to really be Mexican when it seems to be the main concern Dante has in his life. I mean, I get it… This is really about Ari and his attempt to make sense of his life in the in-between, but Dante’s conflict with his own identity was so prevalent that I wished we could have touched more on it.
Let’s Conclude This
I don’t mind books that are predictable as long as they take you on an interesting journey to get to that end which this book definitely does. You know from the get-go that Ari and Dante are going to get together (even if you don’t know… you know). The questions are: When? and How? I would 89.99% consider reading this book again for myself as opposed to listening to the audiobook if only to experience the writing first-hand. These characters are completely relatable to the teen I once was (okay, I’m totally an angry loner like Ari and not at all like the cultured and well-read Dante), and I will never forget them.
SIDE NOTE: THERE WILL BE ANOTHER ARI AND DANTE BOOK, AND I HAVE STILL NOT STOPPED SCREAMING! [/takes forced breath]
Got any good LGBT+ book on your shelves?? I’m always looking for recs.