Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was written by Benjamin Alire Sáenz and first published in 2012. It is a coming of age novel which focuses on the friendship between two Mexican-American teenage boys. Since release, the novel has been nominated for many awards and won the 2013 Stonewall Book Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature, the 2013 Michael L Printz Award, the 2013 Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Children’s and Young Adult Literature and the 2013 Pura Belpré Award for Narrative.
Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza is a troubled teenager. It’s not that he tries to be bad but he just doesn’t fit in. He prefers to keep himself to himself and doesn’t make any effort to socialise with the other boys his age. Everything changes when he meets Dante Quintana. Dante is everything that he’s not. He’s out-going and intelligent and not afraid to show his feelings. The two of them quickly bond over swimming and the fact that they both have ridiculous names.
Through his friendship with Dante, Ari confronts the issues that plague his home life. His brother Bernado is in prison but he doesn’t know why as talking about him in the house is a taboo subject. He also has a poor relationship with his father – a Vietnamese War veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress – and longs to be able to discuss his feelings with him.
Gradually, Ari begins to work out the issues in his personal life and discover the kind of man that he wants to be. However, when a serious accident puts a strain on their friendship, both Ari and Dante must rely on their bond in order to pull through and come out stronger than ever.
I think I should probably begin this review with a word of warning. The back cover of my book claims that this story is aimed at ages 12 and up but I actually think that it would be best enjoyed by teenagers a little older than this. Although the book is not complex, it does cover a few mature themes. There is some smoking, drinking, drug use and strong language, as well as some (non-graphic) talk of sex and masturbation. It’s certainly fine for ages 15 and up but if you’re thinking of giving this novel to a younger teen, perhaps you should give it a read first to make sure you think it’s suitable.
With that out of the way, I’ll just start by saying that Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a beautiful novel. It is a stream of conscious from the perspective of Ari as he tries to make sense of all of the conflicting emotions that run through his head, confused by puberty, his concerns about growing up and society and his family’s expectations of him. The novel is witty, intelligent and at times incredibly sad – allowing the reader to bond with Ari through the way that he confronts the many hardships in his life.
The novel doesn’t really have a story, which I think might be the kind of thing that alienates some readers. It is essentially a number of snapshots taken over a year in Ari’s life, from the time he first meets Dante to the time he accepts that he has fallen in love with him. Ari is an unreliable narrator, always hiding things from the reader as he hides them from himself. He tries to pretend that his solitude doesn’t hurt him and bottles things up, in the same way his mother won’t talk about Bernardo and his father won’t speak of what happened in the war. Yet it’s his friendship with Dante that gives him the strength to change his world view.
Dante is the kind of male character that you rarely see in literature. He is quiet, charming and highly intelligent. He loves poetry and art and is not ashamed for people to know this. He is the kind of teenage boy who would cry if he sees an injured animal. His sensitivity is initially shocking for Ari, who views him as being weird. Ari has learned his behaviour from his father – a man of few words – and so initially finds it hard to accept a man who wears his heart on his sleeves. Yet it never puts him off. There is just something about Dante that draws Ari to him and he soon accepts him despite his differences. He just knows that he likes Dante and liking him means accepting who he is.
This is a beautiful message for a novel to have. Although both Ari and Dante claim to be searching for the secrets of the universe, the novel’s message is that you don’t have to look far to find these things. The secrets of the universe aren’t out in the stars waiting to be discovered. They’re to be found closer to home, in the small things. Friendship, family, love. It’s a wonderful and heart-warming direction for a coming of age story to explore.
The book also focuses on a lot of difficult themes. At a first glance, Ari has not had a very difficult life but his personal life is still wrought with difficulties. Although Bernardo was arrested many years previously his incarceration has had a lasting effect on his family, particularly his mother who has always been silently baring this shame. The effects of post-traumatic stress are also handled very sensitively. While his father appears healthy and well adjusted, there is still something not quite right – as if he is permanently broken inside. In a way, this is a kind of death as it means that Ari has never felt as though he has a proper role model and therefore often felt as though he has no one to turn to in a crisis.
The novel also does a fantastic job of building its characters as realistic people. Dante is not introduced as “the gay character”. He’s just introduced as Dante. The novel takes a long time building him up as a person before he openly confesses his sexuality to Ari. Which is precisely how it should be done. A character should always be far more than just his sexual preference, that’s only one tiny aspect of who he is. A large portion of the novel is devoted to Ari discovering the depths of the people he is close to. At first, he views himself as being abnormal because he is fighting a constant war inside himself – a struggle between who he is and who he things he should be. An important part of his development is when he discovers that everyone around him is fighting a similar battle.
This might sound a little vague but it’s purely because I don’t want to spoil any part of the end of the book for you. Needless to say, the mysteries of Ari’s family are eventually revealed to him and when they are, it explains so much. One of my favourite aspects of the story was just how much Ari was influenced by the behaviour of his Mum and Dad and how his world view changed the moment they began being more open with him. It was also interesting to see the subtle way that Ari’s love for Dante carried through the novel. It is clear from early in the story that Ari more than likes Dante, yet he denies this to himself for a very long time. However, his actions within the story speak far louder than words and his love is very clear many months before Ari has the clarity of mind to accept it.
Wow, this review is becoming a bit of a stream of conscious itself, very appropriate. I guess I should probably start wrapping this up. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is beautiful, heart-breaking and utterly memorable. If you’re a fan of story-driven novels, it’s probably not the book for you but it’s is a wonderful character study of a teenage boy that has left a lasting impression on me. I would definitely recommend it to anyone.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk