Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

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“Sometimes parents loved their sons so much they made a romance out of their lives.They thought our youth could help us overcome everything. Maybe moms and dads forgot about this one small fact: being on the verge of seventeen could be harsh and painful and confusing. Being on the verge of seventeen could really suck” (Saenz 2014, p. 239).

It’s been a while since I updated this blog, for which I apologize! It’s my final semester of graduate school, and I’ve found myself swamped with work and job applications. Though I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading, I haven’t had a chance to review any of the works in depth until now. I’ve been looking forward to Aristotle and Dante for most of this semester, however, so I knew I’d have to add a review once I finally read it. I had a feeling I was going to love this book before I picked it up, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed! After reading and enjoying Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (which I thought was incredibly sweet, funny, and adorable), I could tell this was going to be another favorite of mine. I’m happy to say that I was not wrong on this account.

The story follows two teens (named Aristotle and Dante, as the title implies) with Mexican heritage who meet one summer at the local pool. Aristotle, nicknamed Ari by his friends and family, is quiet and thoughtful, and has trouble making friends and meeting new people. Dante, on the other hand, is bold and loud, entirely unafraid of articulating himself. As the story progresses, the two form an unshakable bond of friendship that slowly grows into more (though neither boy is quite prepared to deal with the ensuing emotions). The novel deals with themes such as homophobia, family, friendship, and assault, and does so without ever feeling preachy or over-the-top.

As to be expected, my favorite part of this novel was the relationship between Dante and Aristotle, which holds all of the simplicity and innocence of first love while speaking to the difficulties of being an LGBT youth. As Dante slowly comes to realize that he likes boys more than girls, Ari finds himself pulling further and further away, uncomfortable and ashamed of his own feelings. This idea of shame is further solidified when Ari learns that his estranged aunt has been living with another woman for almost his entire life, causing her to be shunned by a majority of Ari’s family. Not only does Ari feel guilty for harboring feelings for Dante, but he also begins to feel guilty about never reaching out to his aunt (who he used to be incredibly close to), especially after her death later in the novel.

Both Dante and Aristotle are fortunate enough, however, to have incredibly loving and understanding parents, parents who encourage them to accept their feelings and be who they are. I found this to be incredibly important, and something that more young adult literature needs to embrace. Not all parents are homophobic and intolerant, and I think it’s important for questioning or LGBT teens to see that there are supportive adults in the world. At one point in the novel, Ari confesses to Dante’s parents that he admitted to liking boys more than girls, and Dante’s parents are shocked and hurt that their son would be afraid to confide in them (mostly because he didn’t want to disappoint them). It’s heart-breaking and powerful, and a true testament to the bond of love shared between parents and children.

Surprisingly, I failed to notice Ari’s inner turmoil as the novel progressed, as it seemed much more like he was asexual than bottling up his feelings towards Dante. Though he comes to accept his feelings in the end, their relationship seems one-sided at times, with Dante falling fast and hard while Ari struggles to feel any physical urges for anyone (male or female). I was sure that he was going to be revealed as being either asexual or demisexual at the end, as he didn’t seem interested in the discussions about masturbation or kissing. I’m not sure if this was intentional, but it was definitely something I picked up on as I read the novel. Regardless, I appreciated seeing this brought up or implied in a young adult novel, as I haven’t yet seen an author deal with the concept of asexuality before now.

That being said, I still really enjoyed the relationship between Dante and Aristotle, as it showed the importance of having people in your life to lean on and confide in as a teen. Even if Aristotle hadn’t turned out to be gay, he immediately accepts Dante for who he is, growing incredibly protective of his friend and resistant to any sort of homophobia hurled is way. This is evident in the way he hunts down the boys who beat Dante up near the end of the novel for kissing another boy, bringing out a rage in Ari that he wasn’t even aware he possessed. This also ties into Ari’s relationship with his estranged brother, who was jailed for killing a transgender prostitute when Ari was still very young. This is yet another subtle look into homophobia, as well as the relationships between family members that permeate the novel’s many plot threads.

Aside from the relationship between the two titular characters, I really appreciated the themes of love and support found throughout the novel. Not only do Ari’s parents learn how to heal from their own emotional wounds (Ari’s father has PTSD from his time in Vietnam, while his mother constantly grieves for his imprisoned older brother Bernardo), but they also encourage their son to express his own feelings instead of holding them in. There is also quite a bit of discussion about Dante and Ari’s Mexican-American heritage, and what exactly makes someone “Mexican” or “American” enough to pass. Though it was a small part of the story (taking a backseat to the LGBT themes throughout), I appreciated this small acknowledgement of those who come from mixed cultural backgrounds. I think this helps to reassure young people that it’s okay not to feel as though you truly belong to your culture, as  we are all trying to figure out who we are and where we fit in during our teenage years.

There is a lot of beauty in the interwoven plot lines throughout this story, and I like that they all come together to share a message of being open and supportive of those we care about. We never know what private battles someone is struggling with, so it is crucial to be sympathetic and understanding towards others, even when their actions seem to make little sense. I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and it is definitely one of the best young adult novels I’ve read this year.

Reference:

Sáenz, B. (2014). Aristotle and Dante discover the secrets of the universe. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster BFYR.

 

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