Part two! PART TWO! It has arrived. Notice a second photo of beloved Sufjan Stevens. I promise he’s just as relevant in this post as he was in Part One.
If you see the massive wall of text below and think, “Oy vey, this isn’t a quick review, you LYING LIAR,” I’m sorry. Except not really. I have a lot to say about these two books. But also, if you only have time to read just one, please read the review of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. And then read the book. Because omfg.
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
by Becky Albertalli
This contemporary coming-of-age novel set in Atlanta, Georgia follows closeted high-school student Simon Spiers. When fellow classmate Martin happens to stumble upon Simon’s email carelessly left open on a school computer, things take a dramatic turn. Martin threatens to post Simon’s personal emails to the entire school unless Simon helps Martin on the dating front with one of Simon’s best friends–a popular gal named Abby. But what’s so blackmail-worthy about Simon’s emails? Well, he has been emailing an anonymous classmate by the code-name “Blue.” Blue is also gay and closeted. And very, very secretive. If these emails were to go public, they would out Simon (not good), and would certainly scare Blue away (also not good). And between Simon and the reader, he’s got a bit of a crush on Blue and really likes being able to talk to him.
So, I will say first and foremost that I found a story set in the digital age to be kind of… strange? I don’t usually read contemporary novels that utilize social technology, so the book’s references to Tumblr were oddly endearing to me. I will also say that the decision to firmly plant itself in the present day will likely date this novel, and it very well may fall into cultural irrelevance within the next decade or so. All that said, it works for the time being. No huge complaints there.
The main cast of characters are colorful and interesting. Most of Simon’s friends are unique and diverse and decently flawed, albeit kind of lackluster and underdeveloped overall. No one character really stood out to me all that much, and I found myself less than invested in their arcs. Which was fine because none of them really end up with tons of page-time, all things considered.
But Simon! Simon’s the main character! He’s–well, he’s not super compelling, but he’s a good kid who likes theater and acting and Oreos and he has a bit of a kooky family. And… huh. That’s all I can really say about him.
This is my biggest problem with the novel. I spent about four hours in his head (first person POV, no less) but I still don’t feel like I know what makes Simon tick. I was told a lot of things about Simon by Simon himself, but I don’t see him doing much of anything. I don’t really know what truly motivates him or what he wants. What he’s really good at and what his weaknesses are. It’s a weird place to be in. I didn’t connect much with him, and I feel like I should’ve.
Example: I’m told that Simon is a fan of folk musicians Elliott Smith and Sufjan Stevens (YES, HE’S BACK!!!! I TOLD YOU HE WAS RELEVANT). I love both of these musicians as a woman in my late-twenties, but I can tell you right now that they did not grace my iPod as a high-schooler. By and large, kids don’t listen to somewhat obscure, nearly two decades old indie folk music unless they’re a little counterculture or otherwise different. And I feel like the author could’ve explained it away with some throwaway line about his older sister introducing him to the music or something. Instead it just reads like the author loves these musicians, so she shoved them into the novel and told us the main character likes them too. But I don’t really understand why Simon is attached to their music or why he would prefer to listen to their music over the music his peers listen to. Or why it’s super relevant to mention his taste in music at all. I can think of a bunch of reasons Simon would be drawn to Sufjan Stevens’s music: his songs are rife with homoerotic subtext, and they cover a multitude of interesting topics, such as religion, desire, and identity. If the author had taken more time to relate the music to Simon as a character, mentioning Sufjan could’ve been a great moment. But instead it just hangs there, and it’s kind of pointless except for the name-dropping “cool” factor. Because let’s be honest: Sufjan Stevens is cool af.
If we compare Albertalli’s novel to Stephen Chbosky’s young adult novel Perks of Being a Wallflower, there’s no contest: Chbosky’s use of ’80s music is beautifully done. It weaves seamlessly into the rest of the novel while informing the reader of Charlie’s intense introversion. We understand why he connects to each and every musician–sometimes even each song. None of that happens with Simon, and in a lot of ways I feel like these details are better left unsaid if they’re not doing double duty. They’re kind of random character facts that serve no higher purpose, and in the end they only muddy the story.
Another somewhat clunky aspect of the novel is the mystery surrounding Blue’s true identity. Unfortunately, there is no real mystery–except to Simon, apparently, who is dumbfounded by the revelation even though I knew who Blue was the moment the character showed up on the page. The author tried too hard to make him seem like he couldn’t possibly be Blue, which of course told me that he 100% absolutely was. To Albertalli’s credit, ultimately I didn’t care about the mystery because the ending is nice and hopeful, and it made me smile. I’ll forgive a lot of things if you give me happy endings for queer kids in love. But still, it felt like she was trying a bit too hard and it backfired.
My final thoughts: Not a book to really write home about, but I think the message of the novel is very, very important: coming out is a personal process and decision, and taking someone’s agency away and outing them is an incredibly awful, vile thing to do. Don’t freaking do it, okay? Okay. 3/5
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
A coming-of-age literary novel that takes place in the summer of 1987, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is told from the perspective of Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza, a Mexican-American teenager living with his family in El Paso, Texas. His summer is already off to a miserable start: friendless and decidedly angsty, Ari lazes about at home. He spends his time obsessing over his estranged and incarcerated brother, silently resenting his family for behaving as if his brother is dead. He resents his strained relationship with his father, a Vietnam veteran who returned from the war with PTSD and night terrors. He struggles to have meaningful interactions with his hard-working but sometimes mysterious mother. Aristotle thinks a lot, resents a lot of things, and says very little. But the silence becomes suffocating after a while and, desperate for an escape, he decides to go to the community pool. That is when he meets the utterly delightful and captivating Dante Quintana, and the two become inseparable and fast friends over the course of the summer.
Where do I even begin? Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is probably among my top five favorite novels of all-time. This novel is everything. From Sáenz’s brisk yet detailed writing style to the thoughtful characterization to the emotional resonance to its themes, this book is a damn powerhouse that hits in all the right spots.
On the character front, I love the two main characters Ari and Dante like my own children. They both inhabit a duality of being relatable and frustrating at the same time–as teenagers are wont to be. Their subtle characterizations are beautifully rendered on the page. Their relationship is one of the most tenderly written I’ve ever come across in fiction. I also adore both Aristotle and Dante’s parents, who are given plenty of space and time to shine even if the book is mainly about Dante and Ari’s friendship. They’re all so wonderful and flawed and fascinating. But Ari’s father’s subtle development and budding relationship with Ari over the course of the novel is the primary reason I openly wept for four hours and whispered, “I just can’t–” at my Kindle. Seriously. I did that. I am not ashamed.
Ari and Dante tackles some serious issues in some of the most tactful and gentle ways possible. It makes sure to avoid harmful stereotypes and it always puts character first. Speaking of issues, can I just say how refreshing it was to read about characters who are not white, from a not white author? I’ve noticed a whole slew of queer fiction popping up lately that features predominantly white protagonists–and while that’s by no means a bad thing, diversity is a godsend. Sáenz does a wonderful job of incorporating the Mexican-American identities of his protagonists and exploring this theme to wonderful effect.
Some might argue that there is no real plot to Ari and Dante, and to an extent I agree. The story is framed between two summers, but it’s 100% character-driven. Some people have a problem with stories that take their time and meander. I am not one of those people. In fact, I crave them. Give me thousands of them in my face right now.
I’ve been reflecting on why Ari and Dante resonates so much with me, and I think it’s because it has given me some much needed introspection for myself as a writer. In the late-night throes of emotional devastation after finishing the book, I cruised Tumblr for fanart of my favorite boys when I stumbled upon a text post that said:
“I’ve never read a book that treated its characters with more tenderness, generosity, and sympathy than Benjamin Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante. Even when the characters don’t think they deserve it, especially when the characters don’t think they deserve it… It makes my heart ache so much; it’s a book that genuinely makes me aspire to be a kinder person.” (touchmycape).
I was blown away by this comment. As a writer, I think we all kind of sadistically enjoy making our characters suffer to an extent. I’ll be the first to admit it. I mean, if your characters don’t have conflict, there’s no story. Right? But I’m starting to rethink this approach. Perhaps I should be gentler and more generous to my characters. Maybe this perspective towards writing is what I’ve been lacking for so long. It’s given me so much to think about. One day I’d love to write something as emotionally affecting as Ari and Dante. I aspire to it. And maybe this is the key.
I realize that I’m an emotional person, but I’m being honest when I say that after about the first 20 pages, I simply couldn’t stop crying all of the cathartic tears in the universe. I can’t recommend this gem of a novel enough. Please read it. You won’t be disappointed. 5/5