Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. | My copy: Hardcover, 359 pages, Simon and Schuster BFYR, 2012. | Source: Library. | View on Goodreads here.
A lyrical novel about family and friendship from critically acclaimed author Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
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.
This is a book about self acceptance and love, but it is so much more than that. Aristotle, who only goes by Ari, is a fifteen-year-old Mexican-American living in El Paso, Texas, in 1987. He’s a loner, someone who has never really had many friends and doesn’t have much interest in making any. He’s the baby of the family, with two grown sisters and an older brother in prison. A big part of this beautiful, poignant novel is Ari’s struggle to learn about his brother and to get his mother, a school teacher, and father, a veteran and now mailman, to move on from the terrible incidents his brother was involved in. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a book about family and growing up, but it is also about friendship and love.
The other big part of the novel focuses on Ari’s friendship with Dante. The two meet at the community swimming pool, with Dante offering to teach Ari how to properly swim. The boys, much different in terms of upbringing and interests, strike up a unique and organic friendship, and spend the summer hanging out and getting to know each other very well. I won’t go on much beyond that because it’s best that you discover their friendship yourself. A lot of things happen that strengthen their relationship as well as make each boy question it, and I found myself being jerked around emotionally for quite a lot of the story. Aristotle and Dante is a character-driven novel, focused on Ari and Dante, but mostly Ari, as they grow into their own and make mistakes along the way.
I loved the characters. Dante was my favorite because of his warm, open personality, and his candid, honest feelings and thoughts. Ari was a harder character to love, but love him I did, because of his inner feelings he wouldn’t let out, his loneliness, his sadness, and his anger. But Ari grew so much over the course of the book. He was fiercely loyal, too, and was really just a good kid with hardships that he had trouble overcoming. I also thought that Ari and Dante’s parents were awesome, so caring and loving and adorable (Dante’s dad and Ari’s mom especially). It’s so rare to have present parents in YA books — and even rarer for them to be essential the story. Also — Legs the dog! Gotta love ‘dem canine BFFs.
The writing is simplistic but poetic, easy to read. (I actually read this book in one sitting. It was that good. And didn’t take me very long.) I liked Ari’s occasional diary entries; they were short, snappy, and gave an even better picture of what was going through his head at the time. Also, while there’s not a huge amount of action or “things that happen”, the story goes quickly nevertheless. And the few times there are pretty big events, they are pretty big! (Won’t tell you what they are because of spoilers. I will say, though, that the first big incident was shocking. So now you have to read the book to find out what I’m referring to.) There is some romance, but while it doesn’t take center stage, the few moments of it are absolutely adorable and flawless. Benjamin Alire Saenz has written a truly beautiful and thoughtful book, so touching and perfect. I highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. I knew immediately when I started it that I’d adore it, and I hope that if you read it you enjoy it as much as I did. ♦