Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets – Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Aristotle-and-Dante-Discover-the-Secrets-of-the-Universe-Book-Review

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
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Goodreads Description

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.

Review

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?”
“Sex?”
“Sex, Ari.”
“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.
We laughed.

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. 😛

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53 thoughts on “Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets – Benjamin Alire Sáenz

  1. I was one of those who did have that emotional impact, although I totally understand what you mean about the introspective nature of the novel making it difficult to truly sink into the story. It was different than watching him fumble through life thinking (instead of actually telling a story), and much more a reflection from a later point in time. Even though I ultimately gave it 5 stars, I can see how the repetitve and sometimes oddly disjointed nature of the writing can be a hinder to good storytelling. I completely respect your feelings about it and I’m glad you found things you did like in the text overall 🙂 great review!

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    • I’m glad to hear that – I do think I’m more the black sheep for this book! Despite my reservations, I still believe that this was a great novel precisely because it was so introspective , and I can understand why some people love it. In my case, I was expecting something different and those expectations weren’t met.

      Thank you for your comment. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I essentially liked and disliked the same thingd about this book as you. I loved how the relationships betweens parents and sons were written but at the same time I didn’t connect with anything nor anyone. Though I did expect Ari to turn out gay but as you said the way it was done wasn’t realistic at all.
    Great review 😊

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  3. Great review Reg! 🙂
    I really loved this book, like you I thought the characterisation of both Ari and Dante was brilliantly written. With this book there wasn’t much of a plot I thought the story was all about their development so it was great they were both such strong characters.
    I didn’t noticed the repetition thing while reading this book but I wonder if now you’ve picked up on it if I go back and re-read this book I’ll pick it up too.
    Also, and I know we’ve talked about this before with one of your other reviews, but I LOVED the relationship between Ari and his parents and Dante and his. It felt so real at times, and it was brilliantly developed throughout the whole story! 😀

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    • Thanks, Beth! This was an incredibly character-driven book, and the focus on character and relationship development was very welcome. The parents were definitely one of the highlights of the story – finally, a YA novel in which family isn’t totally neglected (or neglectful). 😛

      Do let me know what you think if/when you reread it! I’ll be curious to see how it holds up during rereading – I had to reread bits of the book several times because I couldn’t find that momentum to fall into, so every time I started it again I had to try again, and I think it made me very aware of the writing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s nice to a book in the YA genre that does focus solely on the characters as the plot rather than developing a plot and characters at the same time. It’s certainly a change and it was well written as well so the author was able to pull it off!
        I probably won’t re-read it for a while yet, given that I only read it myself for the first time a few months ago, but yeah I’m definitely interested to see if I start picking things like that up!
        Oh I feel that way about some books, if it takes me a while to get into the story I start picking things up which bugged me a little, I don’t if I’m fully immersed in the story and the world, at least not until I look back, read other reviews and pick up things I didn’t at the time! 🙂

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        • Yes, it was very much about the character as the focus of everything. I’m curious to know if the author has written anything else and what that’d be like. 🙂
          Ahh, that makes sense! Some books truly stand the test of time and rereads make you appreciate them more than before, others don’t. I’m the same way – once the story captures me I pretty much dismiss anything else but if not I become more critical.

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          • I’m not sure whether he’s written anything else but I do know he is currently writing a sequel to this book. I have no further information as to the title, cover, release date or plot, but it’s more Ari and Dante so I can’t wait to read it myself! 😀
            I have a fair few books that definitely stand the test of time, and always will, but there are more than a few which I loved the first time I read them but then when I go back and re-read I wonder what it was I enjoyed so much because I can’t seem to find it the second time around. Hopefully this won’t be the case with this one 🙂

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  4. This makes me a little bit sad because this is one of my favorite books of all time. I cried my ass off when I read it and it made my 2014 reading year. I really wanted you to love it but I also understand that books affect people different and not everyone will love the same books I love, example: The Scorpio Races. But honestly, I’m just glad you didn’t hate it haha

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  5. These exact feelings! I agree with everything you said about the writing. I briefly reviewed this book in a MINI review (because it had been a while since I read it, so I forgot some of my thoughts) and you said everything I didn’t fit in there. The repetition, the lack of immersion, the ending. Like, is it OK if I put a small link in that post to this one to share a better explanation?

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    • I’m glad you agreed, because it seems like this is kind of a less popular opinion! I’ll have to check out your mini review, haha. And of course it’s all right to link to this if you’d like – thanks for asking first even though you didn’t have to. ❤

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      • It is a rather unpopular opinion. I guess that’s why I was disappointed after the hype (>.<)
        Thank you! I didn't feel right not asking first. I at least needed to let you know!

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        • Haha, thank you – that was sweet of you. And yeah, tbh I think my rating would’ve been a bit higher had this book been less hyped… alas, it’s one of the most popular LGBTIA+ books out there, I think. I’ve mostly been hearing only great things about it!

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Amazing review Beth! I have to say, the typography on the cover is beautiful. I’ve really been working on my calligraphy, so the cover definitely piqued my interest. Too bad the book overall seemed to be a let-down. I think good endings are so difficult to accomplish, but without them, the book is so incomplete… Which book has had the best ending in your opinion? (I still haven’t been able to decide on one yet…)

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    • I know, I LOVE the cover too but it was sooo hard finding colours that worked with it, haha. I’d say give it a try if you’re interested – most people fall in love hard with this book. 🙂

      I am TERRIBLE at picking “bests” or “favourites” so I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for you! Every book is different, and I tend to be very picky with endings – they usually are too abrupt for me. I suppose I like Me Before You’s ending? And Gone Girl’s ending? They’re not typically ‘great’ endings but I thought they were very sound and reasonable given the themes and contexts of the book.

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  7. I can totally see where you are coming from. I think because of how the book is written and how it progresses you can either be very attached and impacted or be left on the sidelines a little. When I started reading AaDDTSoTU I didn’t initially feel immersed but over the course of some chapters I began to feel a lot more connected. I guess this aspect is a hit or miss for some people.

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  8. I feel like in this review you have named a thing I have been grasping at for ages. That feeling when you just feel like you’re reading! Whenever this happens to me with a certain book I always put it down to me just being silly. I am happy to know that other people sometimes experience this too.

    When it happens I always look for other excuses, like where I happen to be reading or what happened in the day before I picked up the book. I might just blame the book next time…

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    • I knooow. For the longest time I was trying to put a finger on why I didn’t love some books (this one included), and that’s the best way I have of explaining it – like the story doesn’t envelop you; you’re just watching from the outside. With some books/certain types of plot it’s great, but not others, I’ve found. 😛

      Sometimes I blame my mood too, but I think it’s a combination of the two for the most part. I do wonder what I’d feel if I picked up Ari and Dante on a different day… maybe my thoughts would be very different.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’ve been meaning to read this book for so long. I’m so sorry you didn’t like the ending and I’m not so sure If i want to read it after reading your review. There is so much hype about htis book and i dont want to be disappointd.

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    • I’d recommend you give it a try – most people seem to really LOVE it, and from what I’ve seen I am kind of the black sheep with this one, haha. Maybe pick it up, read a few chapters and go from there? I hope you like it. 😛

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Such a great review, once again, thank you for sharing your thoughts about this 🙂 I have to say, if I really enjoyed it, you do make a good point: I was a little too aware at times that I was actually reading a book, and not fully experimenting Ari and Dante’s lives and everything. But it was a great coming of age story! 🙂

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  11. Totally agree. I was so unconnected that I just couldn’t finish it. I stopped sometime after Ari left hospital. Couldn’t bother myself with it. And the audiobook narrator didn’t work for me either. Sigh.

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