Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

ari and dante

So how long has it been? Over six months I believe. I’m dreadfully sorry for being away – lengthy review slumps aren’t fun. But let’s hope that a review of this little gem would be a cure I need.

 

Ari and Dante are two teenage boys from El Paso, Texas with unconventional names. An introverted, sarcastic Ari has a penchant for lashing out on people – teenage hormones coupled with a brother in prison and parental figures who, lovely as they are, have their own wars to fight, with aren’t the best recipe for a happy summer. But then, Ari meets Dante – an intellectual, an artist, a guy who is practically radiant. One thing the boys have in common is that they are loners, albeit in different ways.The two strike a friendship, a friendship that starts with an understanding that passes between them when they learn each other’s names. The two friends have their ups and downs during the summer before Dante has to leave for a year, leaving Ari confused and angry about his feelings…

 

Coming of age is defined as “a young person’s transition to adulthood”. This naturally implies that any coming-of-age book has a particular centerpiece – character development of its protagonist. There are some books that are branded as “coming of age” stories, but they feature little to none character development and the writers disguise “stereotypical teenage activities” like drinking and drugs as such. However, more often than not, these MacGuffins are purely there for shock value. In “Ari and Dante”, however, while these activities take place on a couple of occasions, the author does not focus on them and one can genuinely trace the development of the narrator (Ari). He starts off as a brooding fifteen-year-old kid who doesn’t really have any friends and throughout the book, the reader learns about his family problems and how his hereditary tendencies to keep everything bottled up lead him towards the Ari that he used to be. When he meets Dante, a boy who appears to be self-assured, incredibly smart and an all-around people pleaser, Ari’s summer suddenly gets much better. Ari describes Dante as someone who “made talking and living and feeling seem like all those things were perfectly natural”. That was not the case in Ari’s world, for many reasons. Towards the end of the book, Ari, however, realises what the reader knew all along. “The Ari I used to be didn’t exist anymore. And the Ari I was becoming? He didn’t exist yet.” This sense of confusion, of living in a “prologue”, is very familiar to young adults.

 

Ari, as well as the author, arguably, see summer as a way to “write something beautiful in the book”. The problem that Ari had – thinking that he didn’t have any idea what to write – is eventually solved by Dante. Ari at some point in the book says that words are different “when they live inside of you”, showing the reader once again that he has a lot to say but doesn’t know how. I must say that Ari’s first person PoV was one of the best things about the book. He is not the most reliable narrator – his perspective is more often than not skewed and muddled by the constant internal monologue – but one of the factors that contributes to that, as the reader and Ari learn at the end – is that Ari is in love for the first time. Everyone, including Ari’s and Dante’s parents, know that, and the feeling is more than mutual. That is another thing I loved – the family relationships. Both sets of parents have their own issues and problems, but they love their children more than anything. Parental homophobia is one of the things that really gets under my skin, and I am glad that the book has no trace of it.

 

The title of the book encompasses several things – firstly, one of Ari’s and Dante’s favourite things to do – stargazing. Secondly, it arguably refers to Ari’s and Dante’s blossoming friendship; every relationship is a combination of endless things people put in it, and the author makes it seem as though a relationship is a small universe of its own, for the participants to build and discover. And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the title refers to Ari and Dante getting to know themselves, as well as each other. It may be written with very little purple prose, but, not unlike Zusak’s “I am the Messenger”, the words and sentences author uses compile a lovely, profound work. My rating is 9/10.

 

Favourite quotes

Maybe we just lived between hurting and healing”

“Words were different when they lived inside of you”

“Another secret of the universe: Sometimes pain was like a storm that came out of nowhere. The clearest summer morning could end in a downpour. Could end in lightning and thunder”.

 

Recommendations

You might like “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” if you liked:

 

“The Catcher in the Rye” by JD Salinger

“Eleanor and Park” by Rainbow Rowell

“I am the Messenger” by Markus Zusak

 

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

  1. I’m so glad you loved this! I thought it was beauuuutiful ❤ My favorite YA LGBT book actually. Have you read Captive Prince? (M/M romance?) It's my favorite gay series! I remember feeling meh about the writing in this book at first but, like Perks of Being a Wallflower, you really get used to it and discover its beauty along the way. :))

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