Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
By Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.
I was introduced to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Laura of Owl Tell You About It, who had nothing but glowing things to say about this book. A quick Goodreads and Amazon scan brought up a lot of other positive reviews, some of them outstanding, and from bloggers I’ve been connected with for a while. How did I miss this one?
The story is about two teenage boys, Aristotle and Dante, whose lives and personalities seem worlds apart, but who are connected by something stronger than circumstances. Although they and their families are very different, the two boys soon become friends (not without plenty of tense moments) and stumble upon a universe all their own – two planets, as different as Earth and Mars, but orbiting each other in the most natural way.
Through painful accidents and dangerous situations, through tragedy and loss, through long-distances and secret family histories rediscovered, what Aristotle, especially, learns is that it is okay to be vulnerable – to need someone. And what Dante learns is how to be needed, and how to be patient. This is a story about two boys, Ari and Dante, one who is sure about who he is and the other who is on a difficult path to discovery. Their worlds collide and the friendship they create in the process might be enough to destroy them, or to save their lives.
4 – Characters very well-developed.
Aristotle, Dante, and their parents. These are the primary and secondary characters in a book that is rather light on characters, which is fine because the real story is Dante & Aristotle. Some others make their appearances, in brief or in memory. Aristotle’s brother and sisters, for instance, and Dante’s boyfriend. But the story is, start-to-finish, in-and-out, all about Dante and Aristotle. Dante can swim. Ari can’t. Dante is well-read, artistic, and self-confident. Ari prefers solitude and quiet – he harbors a darkness, an anger, and has a hard time communicating. Dante loves poetry and loves to draw. Ari spends most of his time thinking about his older brother (who is incarcerated), and about why his parents refuse to talk about it. Dante is fair-skinned and beautiful, but longs to feel closer to his Mexican heritage; Ari is darker, plain, and wouldn’t mind being less obviously Mexican.
Somehow, these two very different boys find each other, balance each other, and develop a friendship that fits them both like nothing ever has. Dante manages to penetrate Aristotle’s defences, and Aristotle helps keep Dante grounded, giving him the strength and courage he will need to confront his biggest fear. Through it all, they share words and dreams, poetry and laughter, books, games, and even artwork. Together, they realize that the universe doesn’t just surround them – it is what they create for themselves.
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
If the story itself isn’t wonderful enough (it is), the way it is delivered cannot be ignored. This is the first book I’ve read by Sáenz, but numerous people told me, while reading this, how much they enjoyed his prose and storytelling abilities. I’m jumping on the bandwagon. His prose is sparse but romantic. The complexities of language – of finding the right word for the right moment – are part of Aristotle’s journey, so the prose itself becomes a part of the story. Vivid imagery, beautiful language, emotional knuckle-punches, and a great sense of humor all pack themselves into a carefully crafted style that is accompanied by natural dialogue and a unique narrative perspective.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
If I am being honest, I must admit that I was disappointed by this book in two ways; first, by the final reveal (or revelation?) and second by the way that reveal came about. I was incredibly excited to possibly have discovered a genuine, touching, “boy’s boy” book about two guy friends, one of whom just happens to be gay. But it doesn’t turn out exactly as it appears, and even if the ending isn’t too deftly veiled, one (me, at least) still hoped it would go a certain way. I realize I’m being ambiguous, but it’s hard to talk about what happens without giving away the whole ball game – and since this is such a beautiful story told in such a wonderful way, I definitely do not want to spoil it for anyone. Others might be perfectly pleased with the way it turns out, though, again, I’m not sure that anyone could be thrilled with its mode of delivery. Maybe I’m wrong. Prove me wrong!
Ultimately, this is a sweet, sweet book filled with emotion, passion, love, pain, and reality. It’s a coming of age story that is believable and remarkable at the same time. Even though I would have taken the ending in a different direction, I’m still thrilled with the experience of reading this book – it has won countless awards, and it’s not hard to understand why. We’re looking at a new standard for honest, contemporary YA with realistic male characters and topical issues, delivered in a believable and magical way. Right on.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Friendship, Family, Mexican-American, Gay, Coming of Age, First Love, YA.
“The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea.”
“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.”
“That afternoon, I learned two new words. ‘Inscrutable’ ‘friend.’ Words were different when they lived inside of you.”
“And it seemed to me that Dante’s face was a map of the world. A world without any darkness.”
“You can’t make anyone be an adult. Especially an adult.”
“The summer sun was not meant for boys like me. Boys like me belonged to the rain.”
I’m so glad you enjoyed this book! I thought you might, especially because of Saenz’s beautiful writing. Can I just say that I love reading your reviews. You’re such a great writer! You should, oh I don’t know, write a book one day. 😉
About the ending: I think reactions to this particular ending have a little bit to do with expectation. Of course, pretty much any ending to any book ever has something to do with that. In the case of this book, I knew what was coming. It’s not that anyone told me what would happen. I just expected it for some reason, so I wasn’t really put off by it. I can see what you mean though. It may have been a better book had it gone in a different direction. I still love it to pieces, though, for exactly the reason you said: it’s “honest contemporary YA with realistic male characters and topical issues, delivered in a believable and magical way.”
Thanks, Laura! I saw what was coming, too, but he plays a clever little bait-and-delay game. I was really hoping for it to go in the other direction, but it’s still fine. A great book regardless.
And, gah. Thanks for the compliment! I have a few books started (and stopped) in my head. That’s where they stay. I seem much more able to respond than I am to create. There’s a certain fear factor involved that I haven’t managed to get over, yet, but I’m working on it. Thanks for the vote of confidence! 🙂
Lovely review – some of those quotes are my favorites as well! I loved the ending but I know various people who adored the book and had some issues with how it finished. I agree with Laura Ashlee that it had to do with expectation… Saenz set it up in a certain way and when it didn’t happen the way some people felt disappointed. I would go into more detail but like you said it’s hard to discuss and not give it away. Overall though I’m glad you liked the writing and the characterization and other aspects of the book! This is one of my favorites of all time.
Oooo…why haven’t I heard more about this one? It sounds very good. I added it to my list.
I kind of felt the same way you did with the ending. While I did absolutely LOVE this book for the style and character development, I did feel like the ending was almost pushed in the direction it went. It kind of broke from the steady pace that Saenz had written in the entire rest of the novel–almost like a “and, now we’ll push them this way” kind of move.
Like you said, it doesn’t take away the beauty of this story for me. Because it is absolutely beautiful. ❤ Great review!
So happy to hear more great things about this book. I cannot wait to get my hands on it!
Em @Emma Jane Reads Books
I enjoyed your honesty in reviewing this book. Sometimes, if I did not like a book, I shy away from writing a review because I can hear my mother saying in my ear, “If you don’t have anything nice to say….” You know the rest. Thanks for the good review.
Cynthia@The Things You Can Read
How do you do this? Guess what I have checked out from the library (and actually for over a week now, but I’m still reading my beat generations books) right now? This, because I am hoping it is about two boys getting together as so few books are. After reading At Swim, Two Boys I need something where two boys love each other and it isn’t a tragedy. I’m hoping this is it, but you know, I’ll see.
(And hell, after reading all these books about drug addicts and mental illnesses, I’ll probably need a YA book period.)
One of the biggest frustrations (and inside jokes) about gay literary studies is that every work of fiction which deals with a gay character results in tragedy (i.e. the gay guy dies). It remains, to this day, one of the primary conventions for the genre. Hopefully things start to turn around and writers begin to realize that we can have meaningful stories with gay characters that do not end in such a tragic/dramatic way.
This is why I fell in love with David Levithan after reading only one of his books. I’ve read everything he has written now, but we really need more.
And lesbians! I have yet to read a book about two girls being in love that I loved. Liked a few and couldn’t get into most of what I’ve found. Like the best movies we have are Loving Annabelle, which I really didn’t like except for the song part. And then two I do love: Lost and Delirious and Imagine You and Me.
I hear from my friends who are fantasy fans that gay characters are all over sci-fi and fantasy novels without anyone making a big deal about it, but both of those are very hit and miss for me. They are not my favorite genres.
Actually, I’m not a huge fan of genres in general.
I may start using your review criteria with clients I coach – just to show them that there are reviewers who do care about these elements of a novel enough to call them out. So new writers might do well to address these things while their work is being envisioned.
It’s your points that really make or break a novel, no matter the genre.
Thanks again for a great review! And for tuning me in to a new author.
I really need to get a copy of this to read. I LOVE Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood by Saenz-I HIGHLY recommend it. 🙂
Great review. I’m very interested in this book, which Molly at Wrapped Up in Books recommended to me (Molly has never steered me wrong!). I have to admit that I’ve delayed reading it because it doesn’t feel “light” enough for me right now (with my hectic schedule, I’m in the process of reading either light books or re-reading classics). I’m not sure I have the mental energy to deal with a book filled with “emotion, passion, love, pain, and reality,” even if it’s a sweet one. I’ll get to it eventually, though.
Okay, I finally got to read this today and I LOVED the ending.
Seriously, this is the type of story that I love. One that drags me along forever, but actually gives me the happy ending. I’m sick of the tragedy. It went where I wanted it to go and where I thought it would go, but I do read stories like this on fictionpress (well the few that are there) and in fan fiction a lot. There is a huge market for this. Not just the happy ending part, but the whole emotional arc of Ari is a very popular trope in… I don’t know what to call it. But it isn’t there just because new writers like to write it, but also because there are a lot of readers who love it.
I just finished this, but I want to read it again. Like right now. I can’t, but I really really want to.
Thanks for discover me this amazing book. It has win the Lambda Prize and I understand why. This book is , with “What they allways tell us”, the best YA novels that I have read recently. And yes, it’s really nice no more tragedy in LGTB romance.I like the end. But anyway the end is the less important. The charácters, all of them, their relationships, the way the autor writes….I have no words. I just finish the book and I can’t stop thinking about it. And as someone says, after reading “At swimn two boys” ,a master piece, I need something like that.
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