Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Aristotle and DanteSynopsis from Goodreads
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.

 

 

 

It’s amazing what you can do on a five hour flight from Seattle to Philadelphia. Oh and let’s not forget that I was sitting next to a girl who, apparently found singing was the way to cure a fear of flying.

That’s right: singing.
Just use Valerian, for god’s sake!

Anyway, as I’m a true Brit and thus allergic to talking to people on public transport, I quickly busied myself in the closest book I could find. I prayed that it was going to be at least mildly entertaining so I didn’t show weakness and encourage singing girl to talk to me.
Luckily, so so luckily, this book that was closest was Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secret of the Universe.
And wow, wow, wow.

Poor Singing Girl didn’t have a chance in hell in engaging this anti-social Manc because I was hooked.

I had, of course, heard of this book before. One reason for this is because the title is pretty memorable and so is the cover, which is absolutely stunning. And also because, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned, I like to keep my eye on LGBT YA books. And because I saw the name of the author and had a mini panic attack because I knew that if I ever read it and reviewed it I’d have to spell it correctly… but this is what copy and paste was invented for. Exactly what it was invented for.

OK, so I’m kidding, but I had heard of this book before and from the synopsis I knew it was going to be a book that I should love, which is always risky. Because when you know you should love it, it always sends me into a tailspin if I… well… don’t.

There are some books that benefit from having a large cast because there are lots of story threads that mesh together (example: Harry Potter series). But this story is just about these two boys and oh, how I loved the relationship between Dante and Aristotle (and I’ll take this opportunity to address my fellow “What on earth is with YA authors calling their characters crazy names?” readers. Yes their names are Dante and Aristotle, no they’re not nicknames and no, surprisingly, it’s not as eyeroll-y as it probably should be). Their interactions were just fantastic. The conversations between the boys, sweet and genuine with just a hint of bite, perfectly highlighted how comfortable they were in each other’s company and developed their friendship which was absolutely vital in this kind of book.

As Dante was watching me search the sky through the lens of a telescope, he whispered, “Someday I’m going to discover all the secrets of the universe.”
That made me smile. “What are you going to do with all those secrets, Dante?”
“I’ll know what to do with them,” he said. “Maybe change the world.”
I believed him.

I mean, of course there were other characters in this story and important ones too, but the majority of the scenes were just Dante and Ari, talking, learning about each other and being together. It was wonderfully insular and beautifully uncluttered, and it allowed me to just focus on them and really get to know them without constantly being dragged away to deal with other lesser characters.

That being said, I thought the secondary characters were ace. I especially loved the boys’ families because it was glorious to gain an insight into what they were like at home. The relationships with the dads were my particular favourite. I’ve said before that parents in YA books are woefully ignored but when they are mentioned (however briefly), about eight times out of ten it’s the mums. So hurrah for the dads! Both Dante and Aristotle have fascinating, and very different, relationships with their dads and it was wonderful to see them interact. I think my favourite was Ari’s difficult and unsure relationship with his dad as he compares and contrasts it with Dante.

My only criticism of this book is that I wish there’d been more mention of Mexican culture and heritage that is mentioned only briefly. It didn’t bother me too much but there were quite a few moments when there would have been the perfect time to just elaborate on some of the struggles that Ari goes through, like finding his place and coming to terms with his identity and the challenges he faced.

Plus, I’ve always found Mexican culture to be fascinating and I think it would have perfectly complimented the tone (basically as if it were a magical realism story without the magic… I understand that makes no sense to anyone but me. Like, even though it’s set in this world, there could be elements of magic if you looked hard enough. OK, maybe it only made sense at 40000ft) similar to the style of Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall) of the entire book if more indepth references were made.
There are books that I finish and I love but I’m quite happy to close the book and move on. But then there are other books that I know I will reread again and this is definitely one of them.

If you ever find yourself craving a read that’s beautifully written, one that explores friendship and love in a gorgeously understated way then this book should be your first port of call.

Oh and same goes if you find yourself facing a five hour journey with only a nervous, singing American as your company.
Either way…

(Bonus Dedication Love: To all the boys who’ve had to learn to play by different rules. Love. )

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