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

ari-dante-cover

Details & Summary:

Title: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author: Benjamin Alire Saénz
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release Date: February 21st 2012
Pages: 359

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 thoughts…

This book has many good things going for itself, so let’s discuss those first.

For one, the cast consists of mostly POC characters. Aristotle – nicknamed Ari – and Dante are part of a Mexican-American family living in El Paso, Texas. The book really plunges the reader into their culture which is refreshing to read since so many other books either A) simply feature a POC character or B) have no POC characters at all. I also enjoyed reading about Dante’s struggle with his ethnicity, which, again, isn’t discussed that often. Another YA book that comes to mind is The Sun is Also a Star.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe also gets credit for incorporating a strong, dynamic family. We’re so used to seeing dead, missing or negligent parents a “normal” family dynamic has become rare.

I put normal in quotation marks because Ari’s family situation is quite complicated. He has a strained relationship with his father, who fought in Vietnam and struggles to open up to anyone, his sisters don’t live at home anymore, and then there’s his brother.

Throughout the book, Ari wonders a lot about his brother. His parents don’t speak about him and have no pictures of him in the house. Ari doesn’t even know why he’s in prison in the first place. All he knows is that he used to love his brother as a kid. Ari becomes desperate for answers, which is heartbreaking considering he has to wait a very long time to get them.

Lastly, the main characters – Ari and Dante – really shine in this book. This is absolutely necessary since there’s little plot (which I’ll talk about in a minute). I’ve read many reviews where Dante was praised but Ari was labelled annoying and infuriating. And I get it.

I get why you would prefer a positive, bubbly, sensitive character over someone who isolates himself from others, is quite impulsive, and quite frankly is not understanding of his best friend’s sexuality at all, but I don’t feel that way.

I was never annoyed by Ari. I felt like everything he did, including shutting himself off and denying Dante the freedom to speak openly about his feelings for him, were a product of either his upbringing or his environment. To me, his actions fit his personality.

As for the things I didn’t like…

There was little plot to this book. This bothered me in the beginning, where I didn’t get a sense of direction. I didn’t know where the book was going or what the point was and I have to admit I got a little frustrated. But I’m happy I persisted and read on. The more I read, the more I understood what this book was trying to say and the fact that this wasn’t a “plot-driven” novel didn’t bother me at all anymore.

The philosophical musings. I have mixed feelings about this. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t. There were lines I loved:

Maybe we just lived between hurting and healing.

But love was always something heavy for me. Something I had to carry.

and others I didn’t:

The summer sun was not meant for boys like me. Boys like me belonged to the rain.

I wondered what it was we were laughing about. Was it just our names? Were we laughing because we were relieved? Were we happy? Laughter was another one of life’s mysteries.

Aside from the philosophical musings, the narrative felt–off at times. Saénz went with a fragmented narrative for Ari – think Perks of Being a Wallflower – and that’s a hard one to pull off. There’s a fine line between doing it right, which strengthens the point you’re trying to make in the book, and doing it wrong, which results in a choppy narrative that brings the novel down.

For the most part, Saénz did well, but there were times where I felt the narrative didn’t flow as well as it could have. Having said that, I would still recommend this book to readers who love good contemporary YA fiction.

Rating

I recommend this to…

Readers who enjoy contemporary YA fiction and don’t mind a character-driven story.

***

What did you think about this book? And how did you feel about Ari? Let me know in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saénz

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