Book review – “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

This was the September choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a YA novel. I had not heard of either the author or the book despite the fact it has become an international best-seller since its publication in 2012. It’s always nice to discover an author for the first time and I am certainly glad I read this. It is a heartwarming story and covers some very interesting topics.

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS

I don’t usually have spoilers in my reviews, but when I review children’s or YA books, I do include them as I am assuming that any adult readers of this blog who might want to get hold of the book for a child they know, will also want to know what’s in it. So, you are hereby warned – there be spoilers!

Dante Quintana and Aristotle (Ari) Mendoza are two Mexican-American teenage boys who meet at a swimming pool where they live in El Paso, Texas. Ari cannot swim so Dante offers to teach him. The two are very different characters: Dante is the only child of academic parents. He is bright, quirky, bookish and artistic. Ari is the fourth and youngest child of somewhat more troubled parents. Ari has an older brother whom he has not seen since he was four years old because he is in prison, for reasons he does not know and which his family never discusses. Also, Ari’s father is a Vietnam veteran, a closed man, unable to talk about his war experiences. The novel is set in the 1980s.

Despite their differences, the two boys develop a close bond. Neither finds it particularly easy to make friends, but they see qualities in each other that perhaps their peers miss. Their bond is sealed when Ari saves Dante’s life in a freak road accident. This results in several injuries to himself. The accident also brings the boys’ parents together and a process of transformation for both families begins.

The boys are separated for a year when Dante’s father takes up a posting at a university in Chicago. They write to each other, or rather, Dante writes and Ari receives. This part of the book is mainly narrated by Ari so we know what is happening with him through the first person. It is a tumultuous year for them both: Dante at first loves all that Chicago has to offer, the bright lights of the big city, but soon misses El Paso and his friend. He also learns that he is attracted to boys and whilst he is relatively at ease with this, he is worried about disappointing his parents. Ari meanwhile is having a more difficult time: he learns to drive, experiments with alcohol and girls, feels lonely and becomes increasingly frustrated by his family’s secrets and their inability to be open.

For a few minutes I wished that Dante and I lived in the universe of boys instead of the universe of almost-men.

Dante and his family return to El Paso and the two boys manage to pick up where they left off even though both have been through a huge amount of growing up in the time they have been apart. It becomes increasingly clear that Dante is in love with Ari. A crisis point is reached when Dante is hospitalised after a brutal attack by a group of boys who find him kissing another male. Ari’s reaction is extreme and the events throw him into a deep depression.

This book is billed as a ‘love story’, albeit a slow one, so you can probably work out where it all ends without me spelling it out! It is not graphic, however, so would be suitable for 13/14 year olds. It is a charming and joyful read, not overt about the sexuality issue, just, celebrating it, treating it as a normal thing, which is refreshing.

This is a novel about growing up, the pain and the wonder of it, and would be a good read for children who may be struggling with confused feelings about parents, family, sexuality, friendship and their place in the world. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Another secret of the universe: Sometimes pain was like a storm that came out of nowhere. The clearest summer morning could end in a downpour. Could end in lightning and thunder.

There is also a sequel – Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World

Author: Julia's books

Reader. Writer. Mother. Partner. Friend. Friendly.

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