Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe“The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea.”

Thank goodness for librarians. For a lot of reasons, really. I’m very lucky to have a lot of friends who work in libraries, mostly in the Young Adult area. I guess that’s one of those things that happens when you love books: you cultivate friends who have the same interest, and they tend to work in the field in a way that lets them share that passion. The reason I’m telling you this is that I owe a big debt of gratitude to my long-time friend Jessica for urgently messaging me that there was a YA book I needed to read. I honestly don’t think I ever would have found this book without her taking the time to point it out to me. And I am so, so glad that she did.

It’s 1987. Angel Aristotle Mendoza (known as Ari) is on the cusp of sixteen years old and quietly drowning. He has no friends. His two sisters are much older than him, meaning that they treat him like a son more than a brother. His older brother might as well not exist since no one has talked about him after he went to prison when Ari was a small child. There aren’t any photos of him. Ari wants to talk about him, to understand him, but doesn’t feel like he can. Ari’s father, meanwhile, is something of a ghost himself. He did a tour in Vietnam that left him haunted and, seemingly, emotionless. He barely talks, flitting silently through the house like a specter.

Ari 1Ari would like you to believe that he doesn’t care about any of this. He would like you to believe that he is above all that, because he believes that to be strong is to not care. What is beautiful about Saenz’s portrayal of Ari is that he captures the contradictions without overstating them. The truth is not that Ari doesn’t care, it’s that he doesn’t want to care, because caring only seems to make the hurts he feels deeper.

In some ways Ari is a semi-modern Holden Caulfield. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Holden when Ari says things like “In order to be wildly popular you had to make people believe that you were fun and interesting. I just wasn’t that much of a con artist.” He might as well call people phonies. Of course, Ari is interesting. He’s fascinating. But he hates himself too much to allow anyone to get close enough to find out. It’s bad enough that he has to live with himself, let alone deal with someone else’s disappointment.

How tough is Ari on the exterior? Dude can’t even swim but hangs out in the shallow end of the community pool anyway. That’s where he meets Dante Mendoza one summer day when Dante kindly offers to teach him to swim. It isn’t quite clear why Ari, who has spent almost sixteen years putting up walls against the outside world, so readily agrees to this. It’s just that something about Dante captivates him. He’s so unlike Ari: open, expressive, honest, calm, and outgoing. People just seem to like Dante when he talks to him, although, like Ari, he prefers to keep his inner circle pretty much nonexistent. Besides, there’s just something about summer days that just gets to Ari: “I loved and hated summers. Summers had a logic all their own and they always brought something out in me. Summer was supposed to be about freedom and youth and no school and possibilities and adventure and exploration. Summer was a book of hope.” He loves summer because of the possibility, he hates them because he always ends up rejecting those possibilities and spending time alone in the community pool when he doesn’t even know how to swim. Agreeing to let Dante teach him to swim is the first step Ari takes toward making a change in his life.

Ari 2Ari and Dante become fast friends and over the course of the next two summers they will each challenge each other to grow and accept who they are. It’s a beautiful coming of age story and very heartfelt. As in all coming of age stories, there will be important lessons about family, friendship, love, and acceptance, but the characters are strong enough to raise this book above any danger of cliche. It helps that Saenz has a deep respect for each of his characters and their situations, helping you to understand them and care for what happens.

I almost don’t want to mention the LGBT element in my review, because in my experience once you mention an LGBT theme people begin to pigeonhole a book. They assume they know exactly what it will be about, and that would be reductive for a book like this. Yes, there is a struggle with homosexuality, but I honestly believe that it’s more of a universal story about loving who you are and not worrying about what prejudices other people might have about you. Ari and Dante also struggle with their identities as Mexican-Americans and what that means for them, the transition from boyhood to manhood, etc. To single one of those layers out would be to ignore the larger picture.

The book isn’t without its flaws, but I am so glad I got to discover it. It will definitely be on my list of books to recommend for the foreseeable future.

Grade: A-

For more LGBT books, check out my LGBT Book Recommendations page.


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