on 22 March 2013
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a coming of age story set in El Paso, Texas in the late 1980s. It's a story of a fifteen year old boy who wants to find out who he is but doesn't really know where to start. I'm more than a little bit in love with this book. It's almost divine.
Aristotle, known generally as Ari, is miserable. Its summer and he doesn't have any friends. He's the sort of character who chooses to be aloof and distant from people. He doesn't seem to want any friends. But one morning he goes swimming and meets Dante Quintana. Dante offers to teach Ari to swim and perhaps because they share "weighty" names or perhaps because of Dante's laugh, Ari accepts. It's the beginning of a friendship which fills the book.
There is drama in this book. Great big, undeniably huge plot turns. I don't want to give too much away about those but for a book which is essentially about getting to the heart of a character, it really does surprise you with action. That being so, it is a reflective book. Ari succumbs to bouts of melancholy. He's in limbo. He's no longer a boy but not yet a man. He lacks control of in life - his mother is often telling him what he should be doing. He still has to go to school and at a later stage he gets a job. He's also divided by cultures - he's Mexican living in America and although Ari feels he is truly Mexican, Dante is constantly seeking to be more so.
This novel is in part about growing into the person you want to be or rather realising who you are and being happy about it. But it's also about communication. Ari's father is a war veteran and keeps his son at a painful distance. Ari desperately wants to know more about his father and to share his pain. Ari also wants to speak about his older brother who is not around. But neither his mother nor father is willing to do so. In contrast to this fragile code of silence, is Dante. Dante who never shuts up, who is stubborn as hell, who lives with his heart on his face, who is impulsive and wonderfully alive.The relationship between the two boys is touching. It's complicated but it's meaningful.
The chapters of this book are really short. I read this book in two days and I am so glad that I bought it. The title captured my attention and it won an award in the US recently so I figured it was worth taking a chance on it. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a rewarding, heart-warming read. The writing is exquisite. Yes, I am definitely more than a little in love with this book. I can't wait to read something else by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
on 14 August 2014
This book is beautifully written, and a great portrayal of someone who doesn’t want to admit their own sexuality to themselves, even when it hurts others.
Aristotle’s relationship with his brother and Dante really bring the story to life, and the progression from friendship to something more is realistically done.
At times painful to read, this is a great story of love of all kinds.
Review posted at http://lgbt-ya.tumblr.com
on 20 March 2016
I first heard about Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe on Tumblr where everyone is raving about it. I was also drawn to it by the beautiful cover and very unique title. I went into it blind, knowing very little about it beyond the blurb and I think that’s the best way to read this book.
Aristotle is your average 15-year old whiling away summer and waiting for life to begin. Ari, as he prefers to be called, is underwhelmed by his short life so far and also frustrated with the secrets his family seem determined to keep. Being a “pseudo only child” with two much older sisters and a brother locked up in prison, he is comfortable and happy being a loner . All that changes though when Ari meets Dante at the local swimming pool. Dante is unlike anyone Ari has met and the two are polar opposites. But it is from this chance meeting that a very special friendship blossoms, one that changes their lives and helps them unravel the secrets of the universe – the mysteries of identity, family and growing up.
Aristotle and Dante is written almost like a stream of consciousness, we are in Ari’s head the entire time, hearing his innermost thoughts. While Ari is not very forthcoming on the outside, his inner monologue is beautiful. He is inquisitive, frustrated, insightful and sad in equal measure but not one bit pretentious. Ari doesn’t seem to realise the wisdom he possesses and is convinced he is lacking in all the ways that matter to a teenage boy. The book’s blurb describes it as “lyrical” and it was indeed lyrical. But, while the word usually denotes something light or whimsical to me, this book was the absolute opposite. It was so, so raw and all of Ari’s thoughts felt and rang true.
How to talk about Ari? Ari who is “unknowable”. His narrative voice is one of the most powerful I’ve come across in young adult literature, and not because he’s leading a rebellion against a dystopian state or because he is rebelling against parents or society. Ari is mostly rebelling against himself. He was often truthful to the point of being painful at times, something that is incredibly refreshing and allows the reader to understand Ari’s insecurities. You realise how little of himself Ari reveals to the world and it feels like a privilege to be privy to his complex thoughts. Some of his opinions and thoughts were so wonderfully uncensored and there were points during this book where, I admit, there were tears because it was so moving.
Dante was, simply put, beautiful. His confidence, his vitality was just contagious and you immediately fall in love with how honest he is with himself and his unique approach to life. I won’t say much more about Dante because he really is a delight to read about through Ari’s eyes. The parents and other characters in this book were portrayed fantastically. It was great to see a YA book where the parents are as central to the story as the teens, and portrayed as human, as something to be understood rather than dismissed. Aristotle and Dante was honest in its depiction of the power struggles, the invisible battles, the subtle dynamics of families – the things that essentially *make* it a family.
If you need anymore convincing that you should read this book, I clearly haven’t fangirled enough above. This is a great read with a lot of depth and proves the critics of YA fiction wrong. If you’re partial to having playlists for books, Wake Me Up by Avicii would fit Aristotle and Dante perfectly. I couldn’t get the lyrics out of my head whilst I was reading this book.
on 14 June 2015
This novel was simply beautiful. It's not really story-driven at all and so I think might put off some readers but it presents an excellent character study of a teenage boy. The story is structured in short chapters, presenting Ari's stream of consciousness over the space of a year. Although he has not lead an especially difficult life, it underscores how the many troubles he has faced have built up over the years and how his friendship with one incredibly special boy helps him to face his issues head on.
The novel tackles some very difficult subjects - growing up, society's expectations, family members being imprisoned and the lasting effects of war - and does so in a sensitive and intelligent way. It's witty, uplifting and occasionally heart-breaking. While the back of the book recommends it to children aged 12 and up, I would say that parents should perhaps have a read of this one before giving it to a younger teen as it does contain drug use, strong language and (non-graphic) discussions of sex and masturbation.
The characterisation in this story is just incredible, with every character being shown as being multi-layered (although Ari does not always realise this straight away). This is what I loved most about the story. No one is presented as being a character trope. Everyone feels real. They grow. They learn. They react differently in different circumstances. For me, this was handled perfectly and really caused me to care about everyone.
For me, this was about as close to perfect as a character study can get. I would certainly recommend it to anyone.
on 22 February 2015
This was a beautiful coming of age story. I didn't know what this story was really about (other than the suggested plot from the title) but I had seen a lot of people raving about this book and the cover was beautiful and so I picked it up and gave it a try.
I loved it.
There was the small downside of the dialogue being repetitive at times, but other than that, it was amazing.
Ari is a loner. He doesn't have friends, he doesn't see why he needs them. He feels like there's something different about him, he's not like the other boys. His father was in the Vietnam war and is closed off, he doesn't really talk to Ari and the boy finds it frustrating. While at the pool one day, Ari meets Dante - who offers to teach him how to swim. Their friendship is quickly formed and this causes Ari to discover things about himself that he'd never known before.
I think it's a sweet tale about Ari finding himself and having the confidence to be himself. The differences between Ari and Dante's personalities are huge, and yet they get along so well. It's heart-warming. There were a few instances in the story which shocked me, such tragic events pulling the boys apart.
Ari was a bit of a bother at times, it was a little infuriating for him to constantly shut down on what was fairly obvious to me as a reader. His feelings for Dante were so obvious, I wondered how he had taken such a long time to notice and accept it.
I really enjoyed this story, it was something different. The more easy-going pace was a nice change for me. A beautiful story about accepting who you are.
on 6 September 2013
How refreshing it is to just settle down with a book, and for once, not be transported to some faraway world where fantasy rules, but to where the most important focus of the story is friendship. Yes, I am aware that last sentence was simply dripping with sap. But Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe (or AADTSOTU, as I'm calling it for the sake of brevity), managed to hit this wonderful point within me, where I at once recalled exactly how I felt during my teenage years, and was able to sympathise fully with both Dante and Aristotle.
Now, normally I am sent running a mile in the opposite direction by any novel that is about teenagers and their emotions. I'm hardly an old fogey in my early twenties, but the majority of books I've read in which the teenagers were disagreeable little sods who constantly feigned that they were deep and mysterious is enough for me to have made the judgement that I would stop reading any books in that same vein. Really, you can blame Dash from Dash and Lily's Book of Dares for that.
If the main characters in a novel are teenagers, that's fine. If its main characters are teenagers who feel out of place in the big world and see the frightening approach of adulthood - it's on shaky ground, but otherwise fine. If they go on about their emotions the whole time - NOPE NOPE NOPE.
However, AADTSOTU proved to me that the above formula can work, so long as the author casts his mind back to his teenage years, and realises: "Hey, I didn't read Charles Bukowski. I didn't sit around listening to The Smiths all day and thinking I was cleverer than my peers. I didn't understand a word of Charles Baudelaire's poems. I was just a regular teenager who occasionally worried about my place in the universe."
Take some time out to applaud, people. That's a much more honest interpretation of your teenage years than being the smart aleck kid who was hyperlexic and into maths, `a philatelist trapped by unknowable anguish', and/or had a hobby of memorising the last words of famous historical figures, or offered their own deep and introspective look into teenage life. The extract below makes me actually believe that this is a conversation going on between two young friends struggling to find their feet in the world.
`The quiet over the phone was strange. "Do you think it will always be this way?"
"I mean, when do we start feeling like the world belongs to us?"
I wanted to tell him that the world would never belong to us. "I don't know," I said. "Tomorrow."'
In fact, the scarecrow and I had a conversation about how AADTSOTU often read like a John Green book that stripped away all of its frills and just got down to brass tacks - an enjoyable story capturing the life of two real teenagers. Sure, Dante and Aristotle have their moments where they ponder deeply about life, but it always comes up as a natural point in their conversations, or Dante's viewpoint of the world. They actually grow and develop throughout the novel, which is wonderful to watch - they're not instantly these purveyors of deep and wise thoughts about being on the cusp of adulthood. Other authors might have just slapped Dante and Aristotle's conflicts up right, front and centre, but no. Here they're just quietly addressed, with the focus simply being on the friendship between Ari and Dante.
I love the sheer simplicity of Alire Sáenz's writing. He's also one of those writers who can emotionally uppercut you out of nowhere with a carefully crafted and placed sentence, or even a full paragraph.
`"Dante's my friend." 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 some of the things that scared me. I wanted to tell them so many things and yet I didn't have the words.'
`The day he came home from the hospital, he cried. I held him. I thought he would never stop.
I knew that a part of him would never be the same.
They cracked more than his ribs.'
Aristotle and Dante are two boys brought together by fate. Aristotle is angry because he feels like his family are keeping secrets from him, and he's struggling to come to terms with growing up. Dante, on the other hand, is patient, understanding, and attracted to Aristotle the moment they lay eyes on each other at the local swimming pool. The two boys strike up a friendship that is warm, genuine, loving, and... words really fail me. This book is just lovely. It's like a nice warm bath you can sink into. A bath that comes with a function that punches you in the gut every few chapters.
I really loved Ari's voice, which struck a good balance between being dry and sullen, yet carrying a range of emotion. You can hear the cracks in Ari's voice when terrible things happen later on in the novel, and it's heartbreaking. Alire Sáenz certainly didn't restrict himself by writing from the perspective of one main character. I came out of this book feeling like I know both boys incredibly well, and of course, I had a little bit of a tear in my eye on the last page. That's the sign of a skilled writer to me - one who can balance the voice of his characters and not write: "The Adventures of My Flawed Protagonist! ...And His Friend."
Nope. Both boys have equal representation in the eyes of the author. Ari might be the voice of the novel, and Dante moves away for quite a good portion of the book, but that doesn't mean Alire Sáenz just forgets about him. The characters grow, develop and change. Aristotle isn't the person that Dante left behind when he moves away for a year. Dante's markedly different too, but AADDTSOTU doesn't make a show of that. There's just subtle hints and changes in priorities for both boys as they transition from boys to men.
It's not just Aristotle and Dante who carry the book, though. Whilst Dante's parents are presented as a fairly perfect couple, Aristotle views his parents as deeply unsound. They love him on the outside, but they keep these secrets from him and Ari feels rather despondent because of it. His mother will never talk to him about his brother, who is serving a jail term, and his father refuses to speak about his time serving in Vietnam, and is emotionally distant from his son.
I really don't want to spoil this book, but there is this brilliant moment towards the end where Ari realises that he's made his mother cry by bringing up some bad memories for her, and she's now terrified that Aristotle will walk the same path as his brother. It's not like Aristotle doesn't have the chance to learn about his brother - there's a box with all of his brother's information in the dining room that he occasionally comes into contact with. However, Ari doesn't think he's ready for it, and knows it would upset his family if he confronted them with the truth. Far from being the angry young man from the beginning of the story, he's now a lot more empathic and open, and I adored that.
The ending, by the way, is absolutely beautiful and worth the price of admission alone. I say I had a tear in my eye, but bear in mind, it's not a sad ending. It's extremely uplifting and the final few chapters manage to tie up all the loose ends in one simple motion. I really don't wish to spoil it, because it's incredibly heartfelt and deserves to be read without any spoilers to mar one's enjoyment.
`My father was right. And it was true what my mother said. We all fight our own private wars.'
To sum it all up - in the immortal words of our friends over at Tumblr, this book gave me the `feels'. It has absolutely wonderful characters, and a simple yet beautifully crafted story about two teenagers growing up and pondering where they fit into the universe, and what secrets it may hold. Why are friends so important? What is love like, and how do you know when you come to experience it for the first time? When are you supposed to do `adult' things, and why do they feel like they've suddenly been sprung on us, like one moment we were young and carefree, and now we need to arrange getting a driving licence and finding a job? Questions all of us have probably asked growing up. AADDTSOTU addresses them in its own, lovely little way and it's an absolutely stellar read I would recommend to anyone.
on 22 February 2015
I have had Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe on my to be read list for a long time, so I was happy to slip it in between other reads this month. I thought this book was refreshing in the way in which it dealt with how confusing the world is, the only reason I didn’t give it five stars was because it didn’t fully knock me off my feet and I felt like it was a bit slow in places.
I thought Aristotle and Dante were brilliant characters. Ari will be easily relatable to many readers either of themselves or their teenage selves. Ari was confused about being a teenager and the world confused him too. Dante was much more outgoing. He was an incredibly unique, vibrant character. I also really appreciated that both parents were present for both of our main characters. All too often parents are missing and it’s nice to see a family that sticks together no matter what.
This is the first book that I’ve read by Benjamin Alire Saenz. I was very impressed. The writing is easy to read and flows so beautifully. The sentences he writes aren’t particularly long nor do they use impressive words. They are simple and powerful. I would definitely read more of his work based on this book!
on 5 February 2014
Wowee I read this book for free on pulseit.com, I will definitely be reading this authors other books.
I'd always found the cover and title intriguing , however as I didnt know what to expect I didnt read synopsis as I didnt want to spoil it for myself. I like to be taken by surprise, this book well exceeded my expectations.
I won't go into plot details, as others already have. Story is mesmorising, poignant, beautiful writing in simplistic terms, making it a very easy and accessible to all ages.
Book covers heavy topics I.e racial equality, meaning of life, being a black sheep of the family, being the youngest sibling, racism, bullying, being different or a loner, not fitting in, great friendship and many more coming of age issues.
It also shows how grownups are not perfect parents, make mistakes, how we still are learning from our mistakes no matter what age you are.
Very enjoyable, easy to read, beautifully written book.
Would recommend for adults who may av gone through similar things coming of age, teenagers who are going through similar issues, and smaller children if you wanted to read to them and discuss it afterwards.
on 6 May 2016
I really did not expect to like this book never mind love it as I do. Aristotle was such a fantastically engaging protagonist: I adored his thought processes and the way he articulated his feelings. I was so prepared for this book to come across as pretentious--for it to be try-hard and obnoxious--that relating to Ari as I did kind of shocked me. Everything about Aristotle and this story is perfect.
If you're looking for a story which is heart wrenching and true I wholeheartedly recommend this! You will laugh and cry and fall in love with Ari. Ari's interactions with his family and friends (and of course Dante!) were all wonderful. His attitude and perspective towards life really resonated with me and I hope I can read more books with such a unique narrative voice. Every single word felt necessary and although I would have loved for the book to never end it ends in a way I'm more than happy with.
I can't even begin to explain how thoroughly I enjoyed this book. Once I picked it up I couldn't put it down until it was done. When it was done? I felt overwhelmed by how much I cared for Ari and his proud I was of him.
on 28 January 2015
I thought I was going to really like this book. It had been lingering on my 'to read' shelf, along with all the other books that I was going to buy just as soon as my pay came in, for months, and I was so excited to read it.
Boy, was I disappointed. For so many reasons, this book just really, really didn't do it for me.
First of all, the dialogue was atrocious. It was really stilted and artificial. And hey, I don't usually have a problem with that; novels are works of fiction, constructs, and I don't mind setting aside realism for stylistics. I do have a problem with it, however, when this comes at a detriment to the novel. The most prevalent dialogue no-no in this book was the constant unnecessary repetition. Every three pages or so, a character would say something to another character and the character would repeat it. For example (paraphrasing the surrounding verbs but the speech is ad verbatim):
'"It's too bad," I said.
"Too bad," said Suzy.
"Too bad," said Gina.
At first, I thought it was just the narrator who spoke like this, and that it was maybe just an interesting dialectal quirk. Maybe it said something about the nature of his character, that he held onto other people's things and made them his own. And then I realised that it wasn't just him. Every character did it. Every single one. All the time. It got to the point where I just groaned out loud whenever I saw it happen.
Another issue was that the two main characters constantly refer to each other by name in speech when you just wouldn't. There was one moment when Ari says three lines of speech to Dante, and he uses his name in every single sentence. "_____, Dante." "______, Dante." "Dante, ________". The reason was that the writer didn't like using dialogue verbs, so he had to make it clear who was speaking. It just didn't work.
The third dialogue issue was that everyone spoke the same. Everyone. No-one had any interesting prosodic features. They all spoke in the same short, staccato sentences. Like this. All the time. Saying things that they thought were profound. But they weren't profound. And they used conjunctions at the start of it all*. And I'm not a grammar Nazi, really, but there comes a point where you just want to grab the author and shake him by the neck and say 'stop what you're doing, can't you see it's not working?
I'm not a huge YA fan. In my experience, most YA seems to be made up of improbably intelligent teenagers saying things that seem improbably smart on the surface, but mean jack s*** when you look deeper. Ari comes out with this kind of thing. Stuff like 'I thought it might be a great thing to be the air', and 'maybe we just lived between hurting and healing', and 'the summer sun was not meant for boys like me. Boys like me belonged to the rain'. It irks me. Teenagers are not dumb. Teenagers don't need to be force-fed this faux-philosophical bulls*** that doesn't mean anything. Teenagers can comprehend meaningful things, so why shove empty sentences like that down their throats? It's a common trend in YA - John Green is horribly guilty of it - and I don't know, maybe I'm just too far from my teenage years to appreciate it, but the whole thing seems masturbatory and patronising.
The narration was also poorly written. It's told in first person, and Ari, the narrator, is obviously supposed to emulate a (not so) typical teenage boy. This means that the author keeps using filler speak like 'yeah', 'really', 'like' in the narration, and it begins to grate after a while. Add that to the fact that the author doesn't seem to know how teenagers converse with each other - an actual quote from a letter written by one teenage boy to another is 'have you ever drunk a beer? Done pot? Let me know', which I think sounds like those meme Twitter accounts with names like @definitelynotacop - and it makes for an incredibly inauthentic text.
And hey, like I said - I don't mind inauthentic. Give me constructs. Give me style in abundance, just so long as there's substance to back it up, and I really thought that substance was lacking in this one, despite the fact that it basically stood up and shouted 'hey, read me, I'm about the meaning of life'.
But like I said, maybe I've just outgrown YA. It's a shame; I was a teenager before YA really came into its own as a genre, and I think I have to accept that I really did miss the boat on this one.
*yes, I was intentionally imitating the book at this point, so don't murder me!