Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Title: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author: Benjamin Alire Saenz
Published: 2012
Genre: Young Adult

Synopsis: Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

My Rating: Red-StarRed-StarRed-Star 1/2

There were 2 things that truly bothered me about this novel that made me take it from a solid pleasing 4 star to a 3.5 that left me underwhelmed and confused.

This review contains SPOILERS for the ending.

The first is the serious lack of plot. Here we have another example of a beautifully written book, prose is on point, lovely flow of rhythm but truly and honestly there is no plot to this book. This is the story of 2 boys that form a beautiful friendship and their awesome parents that get points for the most supportive if not unrealistic parents in all YA. There are themes, without doubt and these are themes that I appreciated and enjoyed. There’s identity and not just sexual but cultural identity. What it means to be a Mexican man, what it means to be a Mexican American. That was my favorite of the themes as a Hispanic woman. There are standards that are stereotypical and I think this novel did a great job of questioning them tongue-in-cheek. There’s also the sexual identity which leads me to my second problem with this book. The ending of this book, for me, rather deflated my enjoyment because I felt it was not properly executed.

Allow me to explain. In this book we have the 2 boys – Ari and Dante. Ari is a quiet hothead living with a family filled with secrets but his parents are very loving. To him too much – he’s the baby of the family and they do coddle him. Ari is angry, so angry. Through the story this anger is continuously linked with his brother’s incarceration and the fact that no one talks about him, as if he’s died. The second link to anger is his father’s silence. His father’s silence fills up a room until it suffocates Ari. Both of these are completely understandable reasons for some serious teenage angst.

Then we have Dante – a sweet poetic artistic boy who befriends Ari. He’s an only child and he’s rather eccentric and very in touch with his emotions. 50% into the book Dante admits to Ari his sexual preference and Ari is the coolest about it. He’s supportive of his friend and has no qualms about it. Their friendship is honestly everything. Ari saves Dante from being killed in a car accident and after Dante is beat up badly by some boys that saw him kissing another boy Ari looses it and enacts revenge on behalf of his friend. Then the reveal which comes as no surprise to anyone, not even Ari – Dante is in love with Ari. They even kiss to make sure Ari is not attracted and he isn’t but he’s 100% in the friendship, loyal to the end.

We then come to the conclusion of the book when Ari’s parents have to sit down and tell him all the secrets that they’ve been keeping. About his brother about his father’s time in the war and about – wait for it – about how Ari has been in love with Dante all along.

Now, normally I would’ve been jumping for joy at such a lovely love story but my problem is that in a book filled with coming of age there is never a moment of self-realization from a 1st person narrator. Ari never questions his own sexuality or his feelings towards Dante (or boys for that matter). He’s firm in his voice as being a friend and not letting anyone fuck with his friend. Yet he’s sat down by his parents and told that the reasons he’s so selfless with Dante is because he loves him and this happens when there’s like 5 pages left.

And at 2 pages left he admits to Dante that he really did enjoy the kiss they shared despite keeping the reader clueless about it. Now, can I go back and reread the book and see the signs where they were subtly placed? Perhaps but still, that self-realization was simply not there and it felt rather easy to simply have one character inform the other about their sexuality. It came so out of the blue for me that I had to re-read the pages twice to really understand that this was honestly not a story of friendship (not that love cannot have friendship, I hope I’m expressing myself well) and I felt rather cheated. I felt like I needed that from Ari, I needed that inner struggle of what exactly his feelings meant but that was not shown.

Now, I feel I must state that this is a lovely book, it’s great for teens and adults alike but for me perhaps I misinterpreted the entire storyline and thus it’s left me more confused and let down than anything. I think Ari was cheated out of his self-realization and I was cheated as the reader of enjoying that journey with him because honestly I thought he was asexual until that very last 5 pages.

That aside, it’s an easy read, I read it in less than 2 days and all the characters are truly enjoyable and diverse. Give it a try, form your own opinions and feel free to discuss them with me I’d love to hear a different viewpoint 🙂

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