Friday, September 20, 2013

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Reviewed by: Nancy

3 out of 5 stars


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.

My Review

I really loved Last Night I Sang to the Monster. It was sad, beautiful and powerful. It moved me deeply, making me cry buckets, shredding my heart to pieces and putting it all back together. I’m not really a crier. If a story has the kind of power to turn me inside out, then I want more.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was to finally get a copy of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe from the library. The cover is gorgeous and infused with meaning. The story was easy to read and difficult to put down.

This was an introspective story about two very different Mexican-American boys as they navigate the troubled waters of adolescence. This is the kind of story I should have loved, particularly for the fact there are so few Latino characters in young-adult fiction.

The story was told from the perspective of 15-year-old Angel Aristotle Mendoza (hereinafter known as Ari). Ari’s older brother is in prison, his father is emotionally distant, his mother is warm and loving, but keeps lots of secrets. So I can understand why Ari has a hard time expressing his feelings. He’s introverted, angry, lonely, and confused. One of the major problems with Ari telling this story is that he is incapable of expressing any deep feelings. Enter Dante Quintana, who offers to teach Ari to swim while the boys are at the neighborhood pool. Dante loves art, loves to read and has a good relationship with his parents. Though he’s warm and friendly, he’s a little too different to have many friends. Dante and Ari bond.

There is lots of questioning about identity and sexuality. There is an accident, a long-distance move, a sharing of secrets, and lots of pondering of big questions in a small way. There was also lots of laughter.

“Do you have sex?”
“Sex, Ari.”
“No, never had sex, Dante. But I’d like to.”
“Me too. See what I mean? We’re nice.”
“Nice,” I said. “Shit.”
“Shit,” he said.
And then we busted out laughing.

(Smoking pot for the first time)

We both smiled, then laughed.
“You’re a bad boy,” I said.
“You’re a bad boy too.”
“Just what we’ve always wanted to be.”
“If our parents knew,” I said.
“If our parents knew,” he said.
We laughed.

There was just too much laughter and childish repetition, which got annoying very quickly. For a story that explored matters of the mind and heart, I felt there was not enough depth or emotion.

Ari’s parents, and Dante’s for that matter, did not ring true to me. There was too much love and coddling and not enough conflict.

The story took place in 1987 and I’m thankful the boys wrote letters to each other, sparing me from reading text messages full of confusing shorthand.

The ending felt too rushed and out of character. I won’t say anything more, but I wish Ari had discovered it for himself.

Not a huge fan of this work, but I do love Sáenz’ spare and elegant prose, and will look forward to reading more of his stories.

Also posted at Goodreads.

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