Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

”And it seemed to me that Dante’s face was a map of the world. A world without any darkness.
Wow, a world without darkness. How beautiful was that?”

This is a very good YA book which could have been great, but fell short for me towards the end. An awards favorite after it was published, there are some beautiful and simply observed lines on the human condition here which elevate the book into the higher realms of literary merit while also providing a captivating tale of the friendship between two Mexican-American teenagers, both of them as different from each other as could be in a lot of aspects and yet bonded effortlessly almost from the time they meet.

Ari is a loner. Reticent with his feelings, resentful at his parents’ refusal to acknowledge the existence of a brother, who is now in prison, and not really having any friends, though he is quite capable of standing up for himself to anyone if it comes to that. So, it is a surprise to him when he becomes fast friends with Dante, who he meets at the local swimming pool. Dante, who shares his Mexican ancestry, is not the kind of person he expected would like him much. Expressive, overtly emotional, idiosyncratically boisterous and with parents who are disarmingly genuine themselves, he is a revelation to Ari. If it wasn’t tough enough to come of age as an oddball in the late 1980’s in a mostly conservative society around him, it’s not made any easier by having a family history dealing with an imprisoned brother, much older twin sisters and a father, though a good man, haunted by his wartime experiences in Vietnam and who seems to have lost the art of communication himself. His mother offers succor and affection as much as she can but the question of unexplained family history is always between them. Over the course of the summer and afterwards, Ari and Dante become closer and grow up together. However, an incident, a potential tragedy averted, brings them and their families even closer and probably inseparable for life. But Ari’s own problems with expressing himself and finding peace with his actions and the existential questions he constantly finds himself up against threaten to derail his relationships and restrict his forming of new ones.

“I hated being volunteered. The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea.”

The book is peppered with smart and very readable lines like this and at times it truly reads delightfully well. The awkward close friendships that teenagers develop at the time they are on the cusp of adulthood and the various growing pains it entails are remarkably real and raw in its expression on the page. Dante’s character, though a bit too gratingly chirpy at times, is genuinely likeable and we can understand why it would take someone like him to break down the walls that Ari has built around himself. Ari’s parents are very humanely and believably written. They are good parents who care about their son but, like every other person, have their flaws which take time to work through.

I had a few problems with it though, which made it a slightly lesser work than some of the other great YA fiction I’ve read. Firstly, Ari’s character, at times, becomes more of a wise-cracking, self-referencing wiseass than a socially tentative young man trying to find his place in the world. There are plenty of times in the story where, on listening to a parent or fellow teen utter something on his nature, he gives an all-knowing retort on how well he knows himself and how parents are such caricatures. Not how I would think an unsure young man would respond. Also, the timeline the book was set in, the 1980’s, doesn’t really register in the story much. I mean, a lot of great work has happened in the recent past set in the nostalgic realm of that era which evoked that age well, but I couldn’t feel it here.

And the climax was a bit of a force fit into the narrative it was trying to convey is what I felt. Not showing any inkling towards it throughout the book, even in his private monologues, Ari is basically told by his suddenly prescient parents on what it all means. What the greatest secret of his universe is. While I understand the need for fiction, especially in the YA space, celebrating individuals of all hues and backgrounds, it should come organically as part of the story’s and characters’ awakening and not as a sudden proclamation tacked onto the end.

Saying that, I still say this book has a lot of good things going for it and deserves a look from anyone interested in good fiction, irrespective of the genre. And I heard there is going to be a long-awaited sequel to this book being released this year. I definitely liked this enough to want to follow up on where Ari and Dante go on from here.

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