Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Hey, readers. Chebk and I hit a Friends of the Library book sale recently and made out like bandits.

Our book sale and B&N haul.
Our book sale and B&N haul.

To top off the day, we also spent time in Barnes and Noble, looking through the YA section for an overview of popular books and diversity representation in their selection. It was slim pickings, friends.

I picked up a copy of Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe there, having seen a few good things about it over on Tumblr. Two boys, Ari and Dante, befriend each other over the summer. They are polar opposites and their perspectives on life and each other help them discover truths about, well, the universe, I guess.

Things I Expected Going Into the Book
-Angsty male bonding
-At least one POC main character
-Possibly queer love story
-Probably unrequited love, I know how these things work
-Awful, unnecessary love triangle
-Teen angst
-I don’t know; swimming because that word was on the back of the book

I haven’t read YA in a while due to the repetitive tropes, as seen above, so this list wasn’t very long. The last queer YA book I read was Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys trilogy which…had all of the above in it, I think, so that may be my actual point of reference.

While we’re at it, if there are any modern YA lesbian stories out there, can someone point me to them? I scoured the library in high school and the last ones I remember reading were Annie on My Mind (1982) and Empress of the World (2001), the latter of which was pretty recent back then — and of which I now remember absolutely nothing.

Anyway. Send me all the recommendations, please. (There is an actual review here. See next paragraph.)

Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a mouthful of a title, which seems ironic because our first-person narrator, Ari, is a man-boy of few words. The son of a Vietnam war vet and a sharp-eyed high school teacher, Ari has learned to bottle up everything he feels and he lets it consume him. (Teen angst count: Hella. But Saenz makes this work.) Much of this maelstrom of feelings centers on Ari’s older brother, Bernardo, who is in prison for reasons Ari still doesn’t know at age fifteen. Nobody at homes talks about Bernardo, just as Ari’s father also doesn’t talk about the war, and Ari doesn’t talk about anything he truly feels.

Luckily, Ari meets Dante. There are swimming lessons and sharing books and general bonding. I can’t say much more about the actual plot because there are some great surprises in the first half of the book that I’m glad I didn’t know about.

The sparse, restrained narrative through Ari’s perspective works perfectly to contain the turmoil boiling beneath the surface of Ari’s entire being. Saenz compensates with constant dialogue, which showcases each character, main and secondary, while only occasionally stumbling over stilted prose. This works especially well with the theme of Ari needing the people around him to talk to him so he can understand them, while also learning to verbalize his own feelings.

Saenz, who is also Creative Writing chair at the University of Texas, El Paso. He looks pretty rad.

As a YA book, this story hit pretty much all the marks on the above checklist, but there were still some pleasant surprises. For starters, I wasn’t aware, going in, that both Ari and Dante were POC: Both boys are Mexican. This is a subject mentioned fairly often by both boys, who seem to struggle with society’s perception of them as stereotypical Mexican boys, including their parents’ expectations of how they will rise above these stereotypes. The undercurrents of their struggle with machismo and family related to their culture is also a much subtler theme. Pleasantly, the issue of sexuality is never discussed in cultural terms, at least not overtly.

My main disappointments with this story were the loose threads throughout the book: 1) Dante constantly expresses that he doesn’t feel Mexican, but there is no resolution or motions towards any actual discussion over this point (understandably, as the focus is on Ari.) 2) Throughout the narrative, I was led to believe that Ari was perhaps struggling with issues as a trans* teen, but the ending seems to imply he is a cis, queer man. I wondered if Saenz intended Ari to be read as potentially trans* and, if so, I wonder what changed throughout the narrative to reject this notion. Lastly, 3) The ending was a bit rushed. In fact the whole second half of the book read like a typical afterschool special compared to the first half, which genuinely surprised me. At least that’s what the Ari and Dante storyline felt like. Ari’s personal storyline with his family held strong throughout, which may have been intended as the larger impact anyway.

As queer POC teen love stories go — not that I have many to go off of so far — I was very moved by Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. The tightly-controlled prose moves the book along quickly while allowing the reader to fully inhabit Ari’s headspace without ever completely knowing Dante. The empathy this creates is especially cathartic in the last fourth of the novel when Ari finally starts to allow himself to feel something.

potato rating
4.5/5 OK Potatoes

Thanks for reading! Look out for Chebk’s blog post this Saturday.

Got a diverse book recommendation? Have you read this book and would like to add or disagree with something? Leave a comment for Cheri at OKPotato!

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4 thoughts on “Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

  1. I loved reading your review for Aristotle and Dante :). It’s one of my all time favourite YA Books. I really liked that the book’s main characters was Mexican and I could relate to their identity struggles because I experience them as well. I definitely agree with you that Dante’s feelings of not being ‘Mexican enough’ were unresolved, but I guess it kind of went unnoticed from my part because I was so swept up in the story that it didn’t occur to me that his issues were unresolved. I really wish we could see a story from Dante’s perspective because he was a very interesting character. Do you think you’ll read more of Saenz’ work in the future? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment! It’s awesome to hear stories about people relating to directing media representation, which is part of why we started this blog. I did like Saenz’s writing style, so I hope to see (and read) more of his work in the future. If you have any future recs, please be sure to let us know!

      Like

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