Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sàenz

⭐⭐⭐⭐

“I wanted to tell them that I’d never had a friend, not ever, not a real one. Until Dante. I wanted to tell them that I never knew that people like Dante existed in the world, people who looked at the stars, and knew the mysteries of water, and knew enough to know that birds belonged to the heavens and weren’t meant to be shot down from their graceful flights by mean and stupid boys. I wanted to tell them that he had changed my life and that I would never be the same, not ever. And that somehow it felt like it was Dante who had saved my life and not the other way around. I wanted to tell them that he was the first human being aside from my mother who had ever made me want to talk about the things that scared me. I wanted to tell them so many things and yet I didn’t have the words. So I just stupidly repeated myself. ‘Dante’s my friend.’”

This book is about friendship. This book is about boyhood. This book is about identity.

This book is a coming-of-age-story. This book is a love story. This book is a work of art.

The meet-cute is: Aristotle (Ari) can’t swim. Dante can. Dante saves Ari from nearly drowning at the local pool. Dante insists on teaching Ari to swim, and thus begins the story.

The two boys have quite distinctive characters; Ari is, for all intents and purposes, a normal teenage boy struggling with his emotions. His family has something of a Toxic Masculinity Problem, with his silent father refusing to address his trauma from serving in a war, and his older brother in jail and barely spoken of. In Dante, he meets his counterpoint; a self-aware, poetry-reading boy whose parents are academic, artistic and open.

The boys’ relationships with their parents being such an important part of the book was something that I wasn’t expecting going in, and that I really enjoyed. It’s refreshing as a 29-year-old reading YA to find the parents not only fleshed out – more than a ghostly presence in the backdrop – but developed, multi-faceted, very-much-human characters in their own right.

Dante’s presence in Ari’s life encourages him to address his feelings about himself, his life, and for Dante; to get in touch with himself, accept himself, and learn to be comfortable in his own skin. As Dante isn’t the narrator of this story, his own development is less immediately obvious, but we can extrapolate that for someone who has spent his life somewhat sheltered, that the story told from his perspective would be one of having his eyes opened to the big wide world and really exploring, for the first time, those things he loves to read about – the things that make him feel alive.

This book is a slow burner. Though there is certainly plot, the majority of the book is what is going on inside Aristotle’s head, and his own struggles with discovering who he is and growing up. Aristotle’s internal voice is straightforward, yet he has the soul of a poet, and Sáenz captures this beautifully. Actually, that doesn’t do it justice: the writing style is stunning.

As the book and the relationship between Ari and Dante progresses, your affection for the boys and the book swells just as their affections do for each other. It’s set in the 1980s, and it’s got great characters and that killer endless-summer-of-melancholy vibe that I am a complete sucker for.

I would write more about this, but I’d just be endlessly gushing and needlessly repeating myself. If you’re into page-turn-y, plot-driven books, then this won’t be the one for you. But if you want a book that cracks open your soul and lays it bare before you, a book that is poetical and stunning and deeply emotive – a book that will leave you, like me, lying stunned on the sofa with tears streaming down your face, unable to move after staying up until 2am to finish it – then this should definitely be a part of your near future.

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