Fiction, LGBTQ+, Life Lessons, Reviews, Teen

Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Saenz, B. A. (2018). Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Place of publication not identified: Thorndike Press.

It is not often that I lament having to return a library book, but this, this is one of those times.

I walked into my local library to pick up a hold during Pride month (June). There was a small but impactful display of LGBTQ+ titles, and being the book and philosophy nerd I am, not to mention aficionado of teen and juvenile fiction, I was immediately drawn to this title. I especially like books for younger readers on what can be considered difficult or complex topics, like coming to terms with your sexuality or gender identity, anxieties, expectations, familial and community reactions.

Materials (not just books) of this type are essential, as they help younger patrons explore these complicated topics, experience diversity and empathy, see feasible “real-world” examples that might mirror their own, and provide insight and connection. Do you know what’s even more wonderful about it? These types of titles ALSO help adults in the exact same way, providing a more personal, poignant and less intimidating format to learn, and grow.

It’s like that Jeopardy champion who won millions of dollars and people wondered how he would ever be stopped and if he could be beaten (FYI he was beaten by a LIBRARIAN. BOOYAH!) . When asked how he prepared to answer so many questions on so many different titles, he said that at first he had a hard time figuring out how he was going to understand and remember difficult information that he might not necessarily want to, if he was reading it from a dry reference book. So he went and looked up the same topics but in the children’s section! The principles, stories and facts were presented in such a way that they were more easily explained, absorbed and retained in children’s books! And while teen literature is arguably a lot more complex, in some ways, than juvenile literature, being that it is not adult literature, I feel like it can still come under the umbrella of children’s services/literature, and there you have it. What a great tool to foster community understanding in a non-threatening manner for all ages.

But back to the book.

Angel Aristotle Mendoza is a Mexican-American (third generation) teenager in the 1980’s, living in El Paso; a loner, with a complicated back story and a whole lot of unexpressed and repressed emotions. His dad, a postal carrier, was never the same after Vietnam, quiet and a little lost, almost fragile. His mother, a teacher, is firm but loving. His twin sisters are so much older than he, that it’s almost a generational gap, and they have long ago moved out and married. His brother, Bernardo, they never speak of. It’s almost like he doesn’t exist. All his photos have been packed away and no trace remains. This has never sat right with Aristotle (Ari), and he just doesn’t know why it has to be this way.

Bernardo is in jail. He was sent away when Angel was younger, and the silence surrounding the gaping hole left in the aftermath is oppressive to Ari. He just doesn’t understand his parents. He feels alone. He has no friends. He is an old soul in a young body, weary and confused. Where once he loved to tell stories, he now just locks all the words away, but there is fire. Oh there is fire, deep inside of him, and it rages. He doesn’t go looking for fights, he says, but he can hold his own.

One summer day, knowing his mother is fretting over him, he ducks out and tells her he is going to go swim at the local pool. There’s just one hitch. Ari doesn’t know how to swim. But, he goes to the pool anyway. Enter Dante Quintana.

Dante’s smile seems to light up the world. He is personable, helpful, smart, creative, emotional, and friendly. Dante offers to teach Ari how to swim, and for some reason he doesn’t immediately know, the ever independent Ari agrees, quickly building a strong bond with Dante and eventually, Dante’s affectionate parents, an English professor and a psychologist. Much like Ari, Dante’s also a third generation Mexican-American and feels a bit like he doesn’t belong, though he constantly tells Ari that Ari is “more Mexican” than he is, but they are both good boys who want to be bad.

“All afternoon, I sat in a large comfortable chair in Dante’s room and he lay down on his newly made bed. and he read poems.

I didn’t worry about understanding them. I didn’t care about what they meant. I didn’t care because what mattered is that Dante’s voice felt real. And I felt real. Until Dante, being with other people was the hardest thing in the world for me. But Dante made talking and living and feeling seem like all those things were perfectly natural. Not in my world,. they weren’t.

I went home and looked up the word “inscrutable.” It meant something that could not easily be understood. I wrote down all the synonyms in my journal. “Obscure.” “Unfathomable.” “Enigmatic.” “Mysterious.”

That afternoon, I learned two new words. “Inscruptable.” and “friend.”

Words were different when they lived inside of you.”

Ari and Dante automatically feel normal together. They talk, or don’t, sit or read, swim or run. They spend every spare moment together, laughing, playing, learning, growing and one day, in the midst of a rain storm, Ari saves Dante’s life. Ariends up in the hospital, with both legs and an arm in a cast and a strong desire to not ever discuss the accident again, nor everyone’s undying gratitude. Ari makes a lot of rules, and “Do not talk about the accident” is top on the list.

Not long after, Dante’s family moves to Chicago for a year, to do a trial run with a university that wants to hire Dante’s father, the professor.  Dante writes and writes. Ari, more angry and confused than ever, reads but only responds belatedly, and then infrequently at best. He thinks about his brother, a lot. He listens to Dante test boundaries and stretch wings as he tries pot and beer, and kissing a girl. He also listens when Dante finds that he’d rather be kissing boys, and eventually that Dante would rather be kissing Ari, though they don’t really say anything about it.

Eventually, Dante moves back to El Paso, and that’s when things have to be dealt with, they have to change, and as with most transitions there is confusion, and pain but also light and breath and release and joy. And not just between Dante and Ari, but Dante and his parents, a potential suitor, bullies and another hospital episode: between Ari and his parents, the ghost of Bernardo, bullies, potential friends and in particular, between Ari and himself.

Honestly, this novel has everything. It is fast paced with short chapters that read like a biopic, from Ari’s perspective. It’s gritty and real, difficult and wonderful. It makes your heart ache, your pulse race, and your eyes glisten. It shows such a depth of love and understanding in a world where we all frequently feel out of joint and you feel like you are right there, in the thick of it;  in the rain storms and fear, the sunlight and acceptance, the street, the car, the fights, the hugs, the hospital rooms and Ari’s chair and even his sick bed. It talks about the struggle to fit in within your town, your country,  your sub-culture, your ethnicity, your gender, your family and yourself. It talks about expectations and living genuinely. There’s a dog, a gorgeous old truck, a desert, human foibles, death, life, rebirth and most importantly love. There is so much of it. And revelation. And healing. Palpable.

“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.”

It was so wonderful that I literally hugged the book after I read the last page, with tears in my eyes, and despite the fact that I have already read it, one day I will own this book, and it will definitely be re-read over and over. And the biggest testament of all: I have already recommended it to my favorite, 13 year old.