Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

AristotleDante[Warning: This post contains spoilers for Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, as well as discussion of homophobic violence. Please proceed with caution!]

It seems like everyone I know has either read or wants to read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. The book is a queer coming of age story that narrates a year in the life of Ari, an angry teen with a brother in prison who makes friends with a boy named Dante. It’s won tons of literary awards, including the Stonewall Book Award and the Lambda Literary Award. It explores issues of race, class, and sexuality, all from the perspective of a teenage boy caught up in all of those struggles. Needless to say, it’s right up my alley. I ordered the book last week and picked it up at the post office on Saturday before I had to head to the mechanic to hang out for a couple hours while my car was inspected, knowing that would give me the chance to really get into it.

I read this book in less than four hours. I started it at the mechanic and plowed through about half of it in my two hours there, then was forced to put it down for a six hour shift at work during which I thought endlessly about it. Then I went home and finished reading. I was in bed by midnight, lights out, but I’ve been thinking about this book ever since I put it down. That was Saturday. This is Tuesday. I suspect I’ll be thinking about this book for quite a while.

Aristotle and Dante is honestly a very simple story. It doesn’t have a very complicated plot; it focuses on a string of events that take place in Ari’s life when he’s 15 and 16 years old. These events are fairly mundane: he meets Dante, who teaches him how to swim; Dante moves several states away for his dad’s job and is gone for an entire school year; both of them explore their sexuality and participate in the illicit activities of underage drinking and smoking pot; Ari gets a dog; Ari learns how to drive the vintage pick-up truck he got for his birthday; Dante moves back.

But Ari also saves Dante’s life by pushing him out of the way of a moving vehicle, debilitating himself by breaking both of his legs when he’s run over by said vehicle. Ari slowly but surely learns the story of why his older brother ended up in prison, and discovers family secrets that change his whole perspective on who he is, where he comes from, and who he can become. Dante is hospitalized after a severe beating from a group of boys who catch him kissing another boy in an alleyway and Ari retaliates by beating one of the boys who hurt his friend. Their friendship grows and changes and eventually becomes something more, while all around them this incredibly well-written mixture of mundane and serious life events makes them grow and change as people and as friends.

Although the basic structure of this book is very loose, easy to read and even easier to follow, the fact is that it deals with some incredibly heavy subjects. Ari and Dante converse several times about being of Mexican descent, and what that means for them. They talk about Dante wanting to kiss boys and more specifically wanting to kiss Ari. They talk about religion. They talk about growing up. Ari and Dante talk and talk and talk. And as they talk, they fall in love, and the little idiosyncrasies that make their friendship work also make it clear that they are much more than friends.

This book took my breath away. It’s been a long time since I last read a book that changed my perspective on things in a significant way. There’s a very small list of books that exists very close to my heart of books I have read and loved and will read and love again (and again). Aristotle and Dante crawled onto that list when I was barely 50 pages into it.

The writing is stunning. Sáenz perfectly captures the voice of an angry teen who’s been tossed a lot of hardships in his life that no 15 year-old should have to endure. He captures the anger and the frustration and the pain, but also the blooming sense of hope that comes with having a friend, that comes with learning about your family and about the things that keep you up at night because you’re so mad about not knowing. Sáenz captures the uncertainty of falling in love with your best friend, as well as the weirdness that many of us experience when we realize that we’re queer. He does all of this by letting Ari narrate his own story, the book a beautiful combination of journal and memoir, the kind of thing that you can read in less than four hours but think about for days (and probably weeks) on end.

There is so much to say about this book, and much of it is stuff that I don’t think I’m qualified to say. What I can say is that I absolutely loved Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. It made me laugh and it made me cry and it made my chest feel like it was expanding and then exploding, a complicated mish-mosh of hope and despair filling me up and making me wish there was more. The night before I picked this book up at the post office, someone on my Tumblr dashboard made a post that said reading this book would make you feel really good not only about being queer, but about life in general. That person was right. When I finished Sáenz’s book, I felt like I could do anything.

It’s not often that I find a book that transcends all of my expectations and takes me to emotional places that I don’t expect to be. Aristotle and Dante does that and more. I could write for days about how much I loved this book, but I don’t think that’s necessary. I’ll let it speak for itself. Buy this book or get it at the library or borrow it from a friend. Read it in hardback or paperback or on your ereader or phone. Just read it. Then we can discuss.

Overall rating: 5/5 stars
Recommended for: everyone, everyone, everyone

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Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

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