When I was growing up, there was a certain rhythm to each day that inspired my love for reading. I would always find my mom sitting in the same exact spot on the couch, leaning against the armrest next to the lamp, one leg crossed underneath the other. That image was the fire that fueled my love for reading. Years later, I haven’t been able to read as many books due to school. But when I do get immersed into a good book, I immediately add it to my small, but growing, collection. After a short visit to Barnes and Noble and thirteen dollars later, the newest addition to my personal library (recommended by the awesome Michelle and her review here) is the contemporary novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz.
Ari and Dante follows the story of a Mexican-American teenager named Aristotle (Ari for short) at the start of his summer vacation in 1987. He prefers to be alone, doesn’t have many friends, and internalizes his issues with his imprisoned brother – who he knows nothing about – and the demons of his distant father. He meets a boy named Dante at the community pool and become fast friends, spending nearly all of their time together over the summer. Ari and Dante is unlike any other book I’ve read at this point. Not only does the book explore a homosexual relationship, but the themes of race, individuality, and all of the different forms of love was so refreshing to read as well.
I loved Ari’s character – I felt a lot of similarities and connections to him, and it made me invested in his growth throughout the course of the story. He’s a brat, and Dante is too, but there’s something very real about it. It comes across as teenagers just trying to understand themselves better, and if they ever do rebel against their parents, it’s handled with maturity and isn’t toxic as it is often portrayed in media. Ari and Dante are intelligent, emotional, and very thoughtful teenagers who are both artistic and athletic. Saenz strikes a great balance between giving them the typical “boy” qualities while also giving them unique and memorable quirks. These quirks don’t make them one dimensional however; they have very real fears and desires that keep them rounded and compelling. It breaks the conventional stereotypes revolving around both teenagers and Mexicans, and it’s a welcome change of pace.
It’s also a story that isn’t plot driven – primarily driven by its characters, Ari and Dante keeps the focus on its titular protagonists, their friendship, and their eventual romance. But the story isn’t limited to just their interactions alone. Over the course of the story, Ari starts to bond more with his father, discovering love and friendship he hadn’t experienced before. It makes him want to give up the loneliness he often craves and want to spend time with people, it’s beautiful to watch these interactions unfold on the page. It’s also worth noting that even when the story does become more serious and emotional, there’s never a point where the negativity of those events clashes with the lighter, more thoughtful tone of the book. The characters are still able to have moments of love even if it feels undeserved. Saenz does an excellent job of showing love and kindness to his characters despite the strife they endure, and it’s refreshing to see an author take this approach.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the romance between Ari and Dante. The book ingeniously acknowledges both sides of coming to terms with sexuality through the character arcs Ari and Dante go through. Dante struggles with repressing his love for Ari and feeling ashamed for being queer, while Ari doesn’t allow himself to accept his own feelings for Dante. Rather than adhering to the cliche of homophobic parents that cast them aside for being different, Saenz presents their parents as supportive and the ones ultimately responsible for their sons coming to terms with who they are. This act of unconditional love from their parents allows Ari and Dante to whole-heartedly reciprocate each other’s feelings. It’s a beautiful message about acceptance and confidence in oneself that anyone can sympathize with no matter the time period.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a fantastic novel doesn’t shy from presenting the highest and lowest points of love, individuality, and learning to accept both. I look forward to seeing the relationship between Ari and Dante blossom and the obstacles they will overcome in the upcoming sequel.