I read this book as part of Latinx Heritage Month. Want to learn more? Check out this post by Naz @Read Diverse Books!
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a book I originally discovered by accident. I desperately needed a new audiobook and picked this one up because it’s narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda (This quote from the beginning just slayed me: “I sure as hell don’t want to write a paper on Alexander Hamilton.” How ’bout you write a music instead, Miranda?! *Guffaw!*) What I discovered in this book was a beautiful, fully realized story about finding yourself. Saenz weaves a powerful tale about sexual, cultural, and personal discovery. Through the eyes of Ari, I was able to learn about a world previously hidden to me: That of the Mexican-American 1980’s teenager. A world I didn’t realize I found fascinating.
Scars. A sign that you had been hurt. A sign that you had healed.
This coming-of-age novel might be set in the late 1980s, but the issues they are struggling through are timeless. Saenz is a writer who shows great empathy for his characters. His writing is so clear and concise, yet so intentional and deliberate… His words are incredibly engrossing. I frequently found myself sitting in the car, staring into space as I got lost in the cadence of the story.
Ari is an unreliable narrator, but only in the sense that he is a 16-18-year-old boy who is still trying to figure out life and his place in the world. He doesn’t understand himself or his feelings, which makes him unreliable. And, unlike so many books featuring teenaged protagonists, I didn’t find myself rolling my eye saying, “DUH. Get over yourself.” as I do with many YA protagonists. His flaws, his concerns, his worries, his development– none of it was transparent or easy to predict. I was just as confused as Ari was.
I had a feeling there was something wrong with me. I guess I was a mystery even to myself.
We, the readers, get few hints as to the direction of the story. And this lack of predictability makes it feel all the more real. Saenz shows a side of humanity that reminds us allowing others to love us is a part of being loved. And a part of growing into yourself. And just like the boys mature over the course of the two-year novel, so do the boy’s narrative voices. Both Ari and Dante grow from fairly immature 16 year-olds into almost-men by the end of the book.
Ari and Dante are intriguing characters in the sense that they are each other’s foil, and yet are not foils at all. Ari likes to wallow in his loneliness, avoid issues and is in a constant near-Hulk state of anger. Dante is quick to laugh and play, patient, quiet, and always gentle. Both are incredibly intelligent and quick-witted, which makes for fantastic dialogue exchanges. And, on the surface, that’s all these boys seem to be. Yet as the story unfolds we discover they are more similar than they ever thought they would be, and the two quickly become inseparable best friends.
One of the secrets of the universe was that our instincts were sometimes stronger than our minds.
These boys struggle with all the same issues you’d expect teenaged boys to struggle with. Fitting in, girls, boys, friends, siblings, parents, homework, societal conventions thrust upon them… I particularly enjoyed listening to the two of them address, in a completely nonchalant manner, what it’s like to be Mexican-American. Both Ari and Dante had strong feelings about their Mexican heritage, but very different feelings. This book could easily become a classroom text which can be dissected over how these boys express themselves, their feelings, their passions, and experience their lives. Neither of them are stagnant, both of them are a powerful force.
Did anybody ever tell you that sometimes you talk like a lunatic that speaks perfect English?
The character development has just PILES of depth. And it’s not just Ari and Dante we get to explore. We also better understand their parents. Their PARENTS. What coming of age novel shows the growth of the protagonist and their parents simultaneously? Not just one set of parents, but both sets of parents. Gosh, this character development was everything… All the characters are incredibly detailed. Gradually growing more complex, but also growing more raw and open to the reader. What seems like a simple story about friendship is layered with profound themes and vividly detailed characterizations. It’s a beautiful spell we are put under.
I have a different theory.
Of course you do. You’re an adult.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe is a book that will speak to the people of the world who have ever felt different. After all, Saenz dedicates this book “To all the boys who’ve had to learn to play by different rules”. Anyone who has ever felt, even for a moment, like they don’t belong should read this book. I promise this is a beautiful ride.