Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Every once in awhile you find a book that can only be described as delicious. So savory you get lost in the story and forget yourself. As simultaneously exciting, and comforting, and emotionally fulfilling as a Thanksgiving dinner.

Can you tell I’m hungry right now? Oh well. The point stands: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is one of those books. 

The novel by Benjamin Alire Sáenz follows the adolescence of Aristotle Mendoza and Dante Quintana, who meet as 15-year-olds in El Paso, Texas and become practically inseparable. When faced with puberty, family troubles, danger, and grief, can their peculiar friendship endure?

Undoubtedly, my favourite element of the novel is the character development. If we break Ari and Dante’s features down into three different levels — external, personal, and internal, say — I think we can observe an interesting pattern.

Their external features, or the ways in which strangers would categorize them, are similar. They are teenage boys. They are Mexican American. They have strange, classical names. While not actively disliked by others, they have no close friends.

Their personal features, or the ways in which good friends or family members might describe them, are different. This ties into the synopsis on the back cover:

Dante can swim. Ari can’t. Dante is articulate and self-assured. Ari has a hard time with words and suffers from self-doubt. Dante gets lost in poetry and art. Ari gets lost in thoughts of his older brother who is in prison.

Finally, their internal features, or the traits and values that even they may not recognize in themselves, are similar again — similar in a way that unifies their personal differences. The most important story arc in this book is not any one event but instead the way various challenges shape its characters’ identities — in other words, the ways in which Ari and Dante discover their internal features — the secrets of the self.

As Ari and Dante first meet at a swimming pool, I thought this mural in Edinburgh was the perfect place for a photoshoot.

My favourite example of this is the boys’ relationships with their parents. Dante and his parents are very open with one another, while Ari struggles with the sense that he will never be able to understand his distant father. As the story unfolds, however, Ari learns to see the two family dynamics in a new light and realizes that the good and the bad in both are built on a surprisingly similar foundation.

Another interesting contrast between the two boys is their attitudes toward sexuality. Dante is fascinated by and excited about discovering his sexuality. He experiences no shame or shyness and wants to analyze it all with Ari like any other part of their lives. Ari is not so keen on this, stating, “I am not interested in having a conversation about masturbation with Dante. I am not interested in having a conversation about masturbation with anyone.”

Unlike his best friend, most physical affection let alone sex makes Ari uncomfortable. Though the entire novel is narrated by Ari in the first person, even internally he is so reluctant to address his sexuality that at times it’s hard to say not just who he’s attracted to, but whether he’s attracted to anyone at all.

I pictured Legs lying at Dante’s feet, whimpering at the sound of thunder. I pictured Dante kissing her, telling her everything was all right. Dante who loved kissing dogs, who loved kissing his parents, who loved kissing boys, who even loved kissing girls. Maybe kissing was part of the human condition. Maybe I wasn’t human. Maybe I wasn’t part of the natural order of things.

Ultimately, while its key moments of action-based suspense are certainly gripping, the heart and soul of this story comes down to the emotional stakes of character and relationship development. I breezed through the whole novel, eager to see who Aristotle and Dante would become and how they would get there.

It’s a book about race, and sexuality, and trauma. It’s a book about how hard and how beautiful and how worthy the pursuit of love is. It’s a truly wonderful story – one I would highly recommend.

5/5 stars. (What does this mean?)

Publication: 2012, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Have you read this? If so, did you love it as much as I did? Let me know in the comments! 

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads and LibraryThing.

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