Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

October 7, 2016
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe Book Cover Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Benjamin Alire Saenz
Fiction
Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
February 12th, 2012
Audiobook
359
Library

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.

(via Goodreads)

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. aristotle-and-dante-red-truckSaenz 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.

aristotle-and-dante-fan-art

Fan Art by JunkKnight

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.

5 Stars

22 Comments

  • Jasmine October 8, 2016 at 7:57 am

    So glad you got your hands on this book! And happy that you rated 5 stars! It’s an amazing book. I didn’t do the audio but I guess it’s as awesome as reading. Excellent review! I like your writing.

    • Jackie B October 9, 2016 at 8:22 pm

      Thanks, Jasmine! That means a lot to me. I really enjoy listening to audiobooks, but they can be hit or miss. Try listening to an Audie Award winner sometime to get your feet wet; if you’re interested, that is!

      • Jasmine October 10, 2016 at 8:22 am

        I have listened to kids audiobooks with my kid and it worked out ok but I also feel sleepy

        • Jackie B October 10, 2016 at 9:41 am

          Haha. That’s completely fair. It’s definitely not for everyone! Does your kid fall asleep too? 😉

          • Jasmine October 10, 2016 at 10:08 am

            He likes it but I think he likes the ones with the page automatically flipping over more 🙂

          • Jasmine October 10, 2016 at 11:06 am

            He likes it. I think he likes the auto read and auto page flipping books more than plain audiobooks.. hehe..

          • Jasmine October 10, 2016 at 11:07 am

            sorry for the double response.. wordpress said failed reply.. 🙁

  • M @ A Blog Of One's Own October 9, 2016 at 2:37 am

    I have been intrigued by this book for a long time. After all it features characters named Aristotle and Dante which I think is awesome. And the blurb in general always sounded interesting to me as well, but somehow I still always lacked the incentive to actually want to pick it up. Your review did it for me – you sold it well 🙂

    • Jackie B October 9, 2016 at 8:34 pm

      D’aw thanks, M! That means a ton coming from you! I look forward to hearing what you think of this when you finish reading it. I obviously <3 Ari and Dante-- I hope you do too!

  • Read Diverse Books October 9, 2016 at 11:43 pm

    What a lovely review! I loved every word <3
    I agree that Ari is an unreliable narrator in the sense any teenager can be. I identified with Ari profoundly because he was basically me when I was a teenager. I hid my feelings and refused to acknowledge they were there even for myself. If only I had a Dante of my own back then…or even just a book like this! I hope there are teenagers reading this book today who will see themselves reflected and learn to love themselves just a little sooner.

    • Jackie B October 14, 2016 at 10:16 am

      D’aw. Thanks Naz! That’s high praise coming from you. 🙂 I completely agree that I can see a lot of myself in Ari as a narrator. I had no idea I was completely in love with my best friend in high school until we had a huge falling out. Hindsight is 20/20. I imagine if there was a Dante in my own life, I would have still been too blind to acknowledge the faults he thrust in front of me. But one can dream.

  • Anne October 10, 2016 at 9:21 am

    I’ve been eyeing this book for a while now because: cover love. You totally had me with set in the late 1980s , though… And different. Different = good! Yes, so, what I’m trying to say is: what a fantastic review! 🙂

    • Jackie B October 10, 2016 at 9:44 am

      Thanks, Anne! The cover is gorgeous– that is sooo true. I hope that when you get to this book on your TBR, you like it. The 1980’s are as prominent as they are in say, Ready Player One, but not having cell phones is critical to the relationship building in this book. 🙂

      • Anne October 10, 2016 at 3:25 pm

        I’m sure I will! Ah, Ready Player One is HIGH on my list! I can’t wait to get started on that one. I remember what it was like without cell phones. It was just fine, except that I wouldn’t know what to do without one now! 😉

  • Amanda @Cover2CoverMom October 11, 2016 at 1:20 pm

    I’ve only seen positive reviews for this one! I tend to struggle with YA for similar reasons, the characters often annoy me or I just don’t relate to them anymore (maybe it’s the fact I’m pushing 30 ). I definitely want to give this one a go in the future. Amazing in-depth review Jackie!

    • Jackie B October 14, 2016 at 10:17 am

      I (obviously) strongly recommend it. I actually struggle with most adult contemporary literature, myself. I can’t relate to those characters even though I’ve surpassed 30. I wonder if I am not reading the right books?

  • Chiara @ Books for a Delicate Eternity October 13, 2016 at 8:18 pm

    I am so glad that so many people have read and loved this book, because I feel like it is 100% deserving. Intersectional diverse books are so rare, and I think Ari and Dante weaves such a beautiful story in so many ways.

    This is a really beautiful review, and I enjoyed reading your thoughts about Ari and Dante. Did you know there’s going to be a sequel? I am a little terrified, because I thought that this book ended so beautifully and perfectly, and I imagined what happened afterwards to be a happily ever after. So if anything terrible happens, I know I will be heartbroken. But I don’t think that I can deny myself reading it, either! It’s tricky.

    I’m so happy that you loved this one so much!

    • Jackie B October 14, 2016 at 10:23 am

      I just learned there is going to be a sequel! I am on the same page as you. I don’t want this perfect bubble of literature to be ruined for me by an adequate-at-best sequel. Not that I think Sanez will disappoint– but this was a perfect storm of lovely reading for me. I have complicated emotions about it.
      It’s like my feelings about The Night Circus. I’m sooo glad that Morgenstern is not writing a sequel. I want my experience to be frozen perfectly in time.

  • Diana October 25, 2016 at 4:06 am

    I have seen this book around but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Your review has convinced me that I need to find a copy and read it soon. I like the story-line and the characters who you described as being deep. I like the last bit of your recommendation. It definitely sounds like the book for me.Thank you for the wonderful review!

    • Jackie B October 25, 2016 at 9:34 pm

      D’aw, thanks Diana! That’s high praise, and I appreciate it. 🙂 I adore this book, and I really hope that you enjoy it just as much as I did, if not more. I look forward to hearing what you think!

  • smsteve7 October 25, 2016 at 5:28 pm

    Alex and I listened to this on our car ride to Michigan. It was an amazing coming of age! I’m seriously impressed by how well it captured being a teenager.

    • Jackie B October 25, 2016 at 9:07 pm

      yay! I’m so glad! I loved that audiobook (xoxox Lin Manuel Miranda). It not only captured being a teenager well, but it also helped me understand what it meant to be *these* teenagers. They come from a background I didn’t think I would ever understand, but I do now. It’s not perfect, but it felt that way when I was reading it. Saenz transported me to another world and I fully believed in it.
      What did Alex think?

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