Title: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Genres: YA, Contemporary, Fiction, Romance, Coming-to-age
This will be a spoiler-free review! If you’re unsure about reading this book, I urge you to read this review to convince you.
The story of two Mexican-American boys who become best friends. They each live with both parents, go to school, and – on the surface – lead pretty normal lives. But that’s about it. Aristotle is fighting a battle of his own, with his brother in prison and his feelings in denial. Dante, though more open with his identity, struggles to ‘fit’ into society. Their friendship goes through sh*t, but that is how they ultimately discover their secret of the universe.
Oh my god. First of all, the novel has a stunning, though slightly ambiguous, book cover that absolutely complements the purpose of this book. It had a simple plot, with normal and relatable characters, but with a roller coaster ride that made this book so much more philosophical and thought-provoking than I could have imagined.
The novel is told from the perspective of Aristotle (better known as Ari), who starts off as a 15 year old boy with an inexplicable feeling of anger bottled inside him. His older brother is in prison, his dad has been scarred by the Vietnam War, and his mother suffers silently. Ari struggles coming to terms with his family’s struggles, but these struggles are gradually resolved as they each bring down their barriers for the sake of each other. The biggest battle, though, is the one that Ari denies throughout most of the book. He doesn’t even say it at any point in the novel, despite being the narrator and explaining other occurrences in his life. This is a great example of how the author enables us, the readers, to discover what’s going on, rather than just be told.
We then have Dante, Ari’s best friend and another major character. Dante reads a lot (actual literary works), draws, swims, and is the sweetest and most caring boy. Ari admires him, and together they share this wonderful friendship. Though Dante’s more open personality makes Ari question his own qualities, their acceptance into each other’s lives proves to be the most valuable thing ever.
The friendship between these two boys is… hard to explain. They go through a difficult phase in which Dante moves away for an entire school year and their friendship falls apart, but it’s quite evident that their care for each other will never die, regardless of how much Ari pushes Dante away.
The secondary characters – parents, family and friends – are also portrayed as complicated as they are. The parents are as flawed and hard to understand as the boys are, and their role as secondary characters does not disappoint.
Another thing that I really liked were the themes presented in this novel. Mexican-American identity, race, sexuality, family relationships, friendships, romance and bullying are the main ones, and they are not portrayed as straightforward as one would expect. They are presented subtly, but with a force that impacts you when you realize what is truly going on..
Finally, I found the author’s writing style quite interesting. As it was written from Ari’s point of view, the writing felt a little childish and naive at times, but also curious, questioning and many other feelings that reflected Ari’s headspace. I thought that was quite fitting. But what really got my attention when I finished the book was how the author conveyed the actions in the book. The main actions are described by Ari as they are, but the aftermath of these occurrences convey these slight implications that convey a hidden meaning behind them. The ending fit all these pieces together perfectly, and I really loved that.
To conclude, this book made me really happy. I was wary about the beginning, just like I would be of any contemporary book with typical characters leading a seemingly mundane lifestyle. But this book was… quite something. I have not spoiled the major events of this book, as there are a few major events that you would have to read to see for yourself (don’t let anyone spoil it/them for you!)