Title: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012)
Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary, LGBT
Extent: 359 pages
Release Date: February 21, 2012
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.
Aristotle and Dante is about two boys who couldn’t be more different but found themselves connecting in ways they didn’t think were possible. Ari is a quiet, angry, inexpressive boy who doesn’t know how to express or communicate his emotions. Aptly named, his counterpart Dante is a sensitive, brave boy who knows how to and does so quite often. When they meet and become fast friends, their lives change for the better.
One thing that I really have to commend Saenz for is his characterisation. Both Ari and Dante felt quite real as teenagers living in 1987 America, and their parents were also well-developed. In all honesty I didn’t connect with any of them (I’ll explain why later), but I appreciate that they were well-written characters: complex, flawed, inconsistent as real people sometimes are.
“Some people you got right off the bat. Some people you just didn’t get — and never would get.”
My major problem with Aristotle and Dante is that I’m ambivalent about the writing style and the overall tone of this book. You know how some stories you can just immerse yourself in completely, like you’re experiencing the story and not reading? I couldn’t seem to do that with this book — the whole time I was very aware that I was following Ari around as he processes things. I never actually lived in his story myself, which was why I just couldn’t connect with anyone. There were also lots of repetition in the writing, and this review here noted these two examples that I’d like to repeat, the first of which is this:
“Do you have sex?”
“No, never had sex, Dante. But I’d like to.”
“Me too. See what I mean? We’re nice.”
“Nice,” I said. “Shit.”
“Shit,” he said.
And then we busted out laughing.
And the second one is this:
We both smiled, then laughed.
“You’re a bad boy,” I said.
“You’re a bad boy too.”
“Just what we’ve always wanted to be.”
“If our parents knew,” I said.
“If our parents knew,” he said.
On one hand, I appreciate what Sáenz was trying to do, because the short sentences made it feel semi-stream-of-consciousness and lent quite a bit to the atmosphere of the story. On the other hand, I also found it rather sombre and tedious because this is how the whole book unfolds. Even the tense moments in the book didn’t come to me as tense, because they just sound too introspective — and again, I was acutely aware that I was reading.
Plot-wise, Aristotle and Dante didn’t really follow a traditional exposition-climax-resolution model. Not much actually happened; instead, this book is essentially a collection of chronological snippets. There are questions of identity here, of sexuality, of discovering yourself, of being different and fitting in. It’s about the little moments. It’s quirky. It’s also quintessentially coming-of-age.
“Another secret of the universe: Sometimes pain was like a storm that came out of nowhere. The clearest summer could end in a downpour. Could end in lightning and thunder.”
The ending unfortunately wasn’t my favourite, as I found it unrealistic and forced. [spoiler] Essentially, Aristotle discovered he was gay because his parents sat him down and told him hey son, you’re in love with Dante because you saved him from a car accident and you beat up the guy who hurt him, so go get him! I’m glad his parents are supportive because we certainly need more of those in YA fiction, but I also think it was unrealistic how Aristotle accepted it so readily, so unquestioningly. Perhaps his sexuality was subtly implied in the writing beforehand, but I didn’t get that impression, so this was out of the blue for me and just didn’t really work. [/spoiler]
I feel like I’ve spent the majority of this review exploring what didn’t work for me, so here’s what did work: Ari’s and Dante’s relationships with their parents (respective and each other’s) were very well-developed. This was the highlight of the book for me — too many YA novels seem to forget that parents exist and usually play quite a large part in their teenaged child’s life, but not this one. Saenz managed to explore that parent-child relationship better than many other books I’ve read, and I really enjoyed that.
Overall, Aristotle and Dante was a solid coming-of-age, character-driven novel. I (obviously) didn’t get the emotional impact that most people seemed to do with this book, but I still liked it. 😛