Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz is a thing of beauty. Its very simplicity is the book’s greatest strength. I had heard many great things about this book but had put buying it off because the ebook was quite expensive. Eventually though I just had to cave in and buy it and I am very glad that I did. From the very first page the book had me in its grip and I couldn’t bear to put it down.
The book is told from the POV of Aristotle (Ari) Mendoza, a 15 year-old Mexican boy who has never really fit in anywhere. He is the quintessential loner – and he likes it that way. He is not terribly comfortable with others and much prefers his own company. At least he did until he meets Dante Quintana, another Mexican boy his age and the two of them strike up a rather lovely friendship over a single summer.
The two boys are nothing alike: Dante is gentle where Ari is tough; Dante is well-liked by everyone where Ari genuinely prefers people to leave him the hell alone. Dante’s parents are academic where Ari’s family is more blue-collared. Still the two boys become very close friends for although Dante is well-liked, he never really had any close friends either and Ari and he seem to balance each other out very well. Their friendship is struck the moment Dante offers to teach Ari to swim one morning at the local pool. From then on out, the two boys are inseparable.
This is a book about friendship, cultural identity, loyalty and love. Dante comes out to Ari quite early on and Ari struggles with his feelings for his best friend. He sometimes pushes him away which hurts Dante’s feelings (as it becomes obvious that he feels something more for Ari) but their friendship manages to endure. It is not until Dante is hurt that Ari must confront his true feelings for Dante that he has been concealing even to himself.
This was a lovely book. I adored both Ari and Dante (Dante slightly more though I must admit!) both of them were wonderfully depicted, fully realized teenage boys. I never felt like I was reading about make-believe characters – the two of them felt so real to me. The supporting cast consisting of the two very different families were also very well done. I loved the Mendoza and Quintana families. Initially Dante seemed like he had the more perfect family what with Ari’s family being so closed off about certain things (like the real reason Ari’s older brother is in jail) but as the book progressed I became just as fond of Ari’s parents (and to a much lesser degree his two sisters who did not get a lot of page-time).
It is very hard to describe the plot in this book – in some ways it feels like there is none, not that it is non-existent, it just feels so much like real-life that you do not really feel as if you are reading a book – it is more you are living the events of the book yourself (not that I am a teenage Mexican boy but you get the idea!). Ari and Dante have an almost perfect friendship mainly because you so clearly feel the love and loyalty shared between the two even when they are not physically together. I was on edge throughout the last third of the book – I so wanted a happy ending for these two but I was not sure if that was the way it was going to go at all given how realistic the rest of the plot was I almost felt as if a sad ending was inevitable.
Love was perhaps the strongest theme in this book. Not just between Ari and Dante; between Ari and his parents, Dante and his parents; Ari and Dante’s family and so on. Ari and Dante were the main focus though. The bond they have is stunning; they both care so much for each other I couldn’t help but root for both of them. I could understand Dante’s perspective but I am glad that the story was told from Ari’s POV. He is the tougher nut to crack, the one who hides his feelings and emotions. Dante was perhaps the more sympathetic character but Ari was by far the more complex. It was difficult to get to know him precisely because he didn’t really know himself.
This book is Ari’s journey and Dante was really the catalyst that set all the events in motion and allowed Ari to grow and let people into his heart. Their interactions were both compelling and touching and I was really hoping that Dante would finally get Ari out of his own introspective headspace. Dante needed Ari but I think Ari needed Dante even more to become a whole person.
“I got to thinking that poems were like people. Some people you got right off the bat. Some people you just didn’t get–and never would get.”
“Another secret of the universe: Sometimes pain was like a storm that came out of nowhere. The clearest summer could end in a downpour. Could end in lightning and thunder.”
“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.”
“I had a feeling there was something wrong with me. I guess I was a mystery even to myself.”
“I had learned to hide what I felt. No, that’s not true. There was no learning involved. I had been born knowing how to hide what I felt.”
“This was what was wrong with me. All this time I had been trying to figure out the secrets of the universe, the secrets of my own body, of my own heart. All of the answers had always been so close and yet I’d always fought them without even knowing it. From the minute I’d met Dante, I had fallen in love with him. I just didn’t let myself know it, think it, feel it. My father was right. And it was true what my mother said. We all fight our own private wars.”
This book has won several awards including: the Lambda Literary Award and Stonewall Book Award for LGBT fiction, an Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award honour, Pura Belpré Author Award for Latino fiction, and Michael L. Printz Award honour for Young Adult fiction.