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.”