Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Book Review)

ari and danteAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz is a good book that suffers from a slightly overblown reputation. Don’t misunderstand me: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a very good novel. I really enjoyed it, and honestly the more I think about it the more I suspect I may actually have loved it. I found it to be well written, engaging, and full of well-developed characters. I would have been completely satisfied with it if I had discovered it on my own (though to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have as there’s something about the title that’s slightly off-putting to me); however, I came across several reviews that led me to believe that Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was going to be an all-time-favorite, change-your-life, best-book-you-ever-read kind of a read. That’s a pretty high bar to put on anything.

What’s it about?

The book is about Aristotle—called Ari—a Mexican American teenager who feels out of touch with the world. He’s considerably younger than his siblings. His brother is in prison and his parents won’t tell him what happened. His father came home from the Vietnam War silent and inscrutable. Like his father, Ari is sullen and friendless until he meets Dante, who seems to have everything figured out. Dante is self-assured and everyone seems to like him. At first glance, he’s everything that Ari isn’t: open, loving, in control. The two grow up together, discovering new things about themselves, each other, and the world around them. The secrets of the universe, if you will.

What did I think?

There were a lot of things that I really liked about this book. Ari and Dante are both lovable, relatable characters. Ari’s narration is painfully honest, and his descriptions of growing up and not understanding his new place in the world are as true as they are uncomfortable.

ARI: “I didn’t want to live in my parents’ world and I didn’t have a world of my own. In a strange way, my friendship with Dante had made me feel even more alone. Maybe it was because Dante seemed to make himself fit everywhere he went. And me, I always felt that I didn’t belong anywhere. I didn’t even belong in my own body—especially in my own body. I was changing into someone I didn’t know. The change hurt but I didn’t know why it hurt. And nothing about my own emotions made any sense.”

There’s something very familiar about Ari’s struggle to figure out who he wants to be and to find his place within his own family. The question of his brother’s incarceration hangs over his head, and therefore the readers, and provides both a compelling mystery and an interesting roadblock to Ari’s emotional development.

[This paragraph has a minor spoiler.] Dante is equally compelling. There is something fascinating to me about how Can-Fit-in-Anywhere Dante was the one who felt alienated by race and—later—by sexuality. There is something encouraging about a character who seems to have everything figured out struggling to know who he is and where he fits in just as much as the one who obviously hasn’t found himself yet.

The highlight of the novel, unsurprisingly considering the strength of the characters as individuals, is Ari and Dante’s relationship. They are both such compelling, fully developed characters that the ups and downs of their friendship are difficult but understandable on both sides. Even during their periods of estrangement, the bond between them is a palpable vein pumping the story along.

I love both sets of parents. Ari’s relationship with his parents is a major part of the story, as is Dante’s relationship with his parents. And Ari’s relationship with Dante’s parents and vice versa. I love when books have strong families. Familial love is overlooked too often, in my opinion. It’s definitely not neglected here.

What’s the verdict?

Honestly, the more I think about this book, the more I like it. I think some of my initial hesitance to say, “yes, it was awesome,” comes from the brutality in parts of it. There is just so much in it that is painfully real and, well, just painful. There’s a lot of time spent in hospitals, I’ll put it that way.

The novel explores all kinds of love, from friendship to familial love to romantic love and does it all with care and nuance.

ARI: “Is love a contest?”

DANTE: “What does that mean?”

ARI: “Maybe everyone loves differently. Maybe that’s all that matters.”

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is an excellent book. It’s sometimes funny, often sad, beautifully written, and painfully powerful. Maybe it doesn’t actually have quite the universal truths of the universe that one might expect from the powerhouse names of the dual protagonists, but it definitely offers food for thought. It deserves all those awards plastered on the cover.

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