Monday, February 11, 2013
REVIEW: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Audience: Teen/Young Adult
Summary: In the summer of 1987, two 15-year-old loners meet and forge a powerful friendship. Ari is a brooding "tough guy" who obsessively questions his place and purpose in the world; Dante is his complete opposite, relentlessly positive, self-assured, and emotionally open. Over the course of a year and through his friendship with Dante and Dante's parents, Ari finally comes to terms with himself and the unspoken secrets that haunt his family.
First Line: "One summer night I fell asleep, hoping the world would be different when I woke."
This book blew me away. The writing is deceptively simple, poetic, and quietly powerful. It's easy to slip right into Ari's mind, to feel every nuance he is feeling, from confusion to impulsive anger. Despite this, Ari remains a bit of a mystery—he refers to himself as "inscrutable"—as even he does not understand himself. I love that Ari is more than a little angsty as a character, but it's not a dark and overblown angst. Yeah, he's confused and often feels quite lost and even angry, but the book never once feels depressing. Not that certain issues addressed in the book aren't emotional and potentially upsetting. Yet Sáenz handles it all gracefully without being heavy-handed in the slightest; in his capable hands, Aristotle and Dante's story is far more sweet than bitter, but it never minimizes those ever-present "issues."
Family drama, issues of sexual and ethnic identity, and even PSTD play a part in this stunning novel, and yet none of these elements overwhelms the story. Ari's coming of age plays out slowly and patiently, and the novel unfolds in a realistic manner. Although one particular family revelation feels a bit coincidental, I bought it. And although it may seem a bit unlikely, I loved that the parents were so accepting of Ari, Dante, and their possible more-than-friends feelings for one another. Perhaps this wouldn't have been the norm in 1980s Texas, but I appreciated that Sáenz didn't need to go there. There is a lot going on in this book, but it all works together seamlessly, without any wasted subplots or characters. At its core it is less a book about sexual identity than about family, friendship, and having the courage to speak honestly and freely to the people who matter.