Sáenz, Benjamin Alire. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. Print.
Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a coming-of-age tale of two unlikely friends. Aristotle, Ari, is a fifteen-year-old, Hispanic, loner. In our first meeting of him, he states, “As far as I was concerned, the sun could have melted the blue right off the sky. Then the sky could be as miserable as I was” (5). Ari is not outgoing or outwardly optimistic. Ari’s mom is a teacher and involved in his life, Ari’s father is plagued by his time in Vietnam, and Ari cannot stop thinking about his imprisoned brother, who is no longer discussed in the household. Dante, on the other hand, is extremely personable and outgoing. He is the one who approaches Ari at the pool and begins teaching him to swim, engaging their friendship. However, Dante does struggle with his Hispanic identity, since he is so fair-skinned, and he later worries about disclosing his homosexuality to his father, who would never be disappointed. Together, Aristotle and Dante overcome suffering, such as violence and death, and they search for love and the meaning of life, as they grow into men. Ari’s struggle to come to terms with his feelings and sexual identity, as well as with his relationship with his family, is, at times heartbreaking, but, in the end, uplifting. Sáenz perfectly captures an unconventional quest of two friends, who learn to love and live.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secretes of the Universe explores difficult subject matter, but Sáenz is able to keep the novel optimistic. Ari is constantly troubled by his brother; he wrote in his journal, “There are no picture of my brother. Because he’s in prison. No one in my house talks about him. It’s like being dead. It’s worse than being dead. At least the dead get talked about and you get to hear stories about them” (96). In addition to his brother’s absence and wondering if he will turn out like him, Ari is also always figuratively looking for his father. After one of his fevered dreams, Ari’s father says, “In your dream. You were looking for me,” and Ari whispers, “I’m always looking for you” (65). Though familial relationships are tense for Ari, by the end of the novel, his family comes through for him and helps him realize what he cannot see about himself. His father opens up about his time in Vietnam, both his mom and father begin talking about his brother again, and, in the end it’s Ari’s father who says, “All of your instincts, Ari, all of them, tell me something. You love that boy (Dante)” (349). Ari’s father is the one that gives Ari the strength to come to terms with himself. On the other hand, Dante realizes that he loves Ari and feels slighted by Ari’s inability to reciprocate. He also struggles with sharing his homosexuality with his father. When his mom is pregnant, he hopes that the baby will be a straight boy to make up for himself. Dante also experiences the violence of homophobes, who beat him to the point of hospitalization. However, throughout all of this, Ari and Dante end up together, and both teens’ parents are supportive, which may be a highly optimistic, possibly unrealistic, portrayal of support for homosexual teens, but it provides hope.
This novel, which is also a Printz honor book, offers a high degree of sophistication for young adult readers. Booklist actually states “this novel is a bit too literary at times for some readers” (134). However, I think that the sophistication is appropriate for teen audiences, though it will appeal to a smaller audience due to its GLBT content. At the end of the novel, Ari has the following epiphany: "This was what was wrong with me. All this time I had been trying to figure out the secrets of the universe, the secrets of my own body, of my own heart. All of the answers had always been so close and yet I had always fought them without even knowing it. From the minute I’d met Dante, I had fallen in love with him. I just didn’t let myself know it, think it, feel it. My father was right. And it was true what my mother said. We all fight our own private battles." Sáenz adeptly illustrates the ways in which teens and adults fight to know themselves. Denial, naivety, and experience force individuals to search hard to find themselves. The novel does a brilliant job of expressing the turmoil of teens that are finding their sexualities as well as their individualities.
Lastly, this novel focuses on Hispanic culture. The reader gets pieces of Spanish thrown in with the English, and it, as Booklist states, utilizes “authentic teen and Latino dialogue” (134). Nilsen states “writers [are] freed to set their stories in realistic, rather than romanticized, neighborhoods and to explore the experiences of characters whose stories had not been told before” (35). The portrayal of gang culture among teens in the book represents a culture not typically highlighted. When the reader learns that Ari’s brother was imprisoned for beating a transvestite to death, the reader begins to understand the discomfort that Ari must feel at being a gay, Hispanic youth. Ari also struggles with the temper that his brother embodied, when he beats the teenager responsible for the hate crimes against Dante. Sáenz gives an excellent play between Hispanic and homosexual cultures. The reader’s heart breaks for Ari and Dante, when he is beaten, but in the end, hearts rejoice for them. They are able to break the boundaries that kept them apart. Horn Book Magazine explains it perfectly - "Ari’s first-person narrative—poetic, philosophical, honest—skillfully develops the relationship between the two boys from friendship to romance, leading to the inevitable conclusion: 'How could I have ever been ashamed of loving Dante Quintana?’" (120). Sáenz skillfully portrays an inspiring tale of teens living in the margins.
Evans, Betty S. "Aristotle And Dante Discover The Secrets Of The Universe." School Library Journal 58.2 (2012): 134. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text. Web. 25 June 2014.
Hunt, Jonathan. "Aristotle And Dante Discover The Secrets Of The Universe." Horn Book Magazine 88.2 (2012): 120. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text. Web. 25 June 2014.
Nilsen, Alleen Pace, James Blasingame, Kenneth L. Donelson, and Don L. F. Nilsen. Literature for Today's Young Adults. New York: Pearson, 2013. Print.
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