Wednesday, October 16, 2013

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

Let's talk about how tremendously much I loved this book.

Aristotle ("Ari") is a sensitive yet somewhat angry 15-year-old growing up in Texas in the 1980s. The baby of the family, he feels disconnected from his older sisters, and his older brother went to prison when Ari was very young, and his family never speaks of him. He also feels as if his father, a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD, is a mystery to him, and he wishes that weren't the case. He spends most of his days alone, distant from others.

"In order to be wildly popular you had to make people believe that you were fun and interesting. I just wasn't that much of a con artist."

One day at the local swimming pool, Ari meets Dante, a boy his age from another high school. Dante offers to teach Ari how to swim, and the two begin an intense friendship. Their conversations touch on poetry, art, their shared Mexican-American heritage (of which Dante is less enamored), and the way they don't quite "get" their parents, although Dante's relationship with his parents is much more open and emotionally honest. which Ari envies.

"I was mostly invisible. I think I liked it that way. And then Dante came along."

As their relationship intensifies, Ari finds himself simultaneously needing Dante's friendship and being scared by that need. He's still not willing to confront his parents with the questions he has about his father and his brother, which makes him angrier and sadder. And when a split-second decision leaves their friendship on unequal footing, Dante reveals that his feelings for Ari are stronger than friendship. Ari doesn't want to lose Dante's friendship but he's not willing to deal with Dante's feelings.

What will it take for us to lay down the armor we have around our hearts, to put aside our anger and sadness and realize that we are worthy of love and being loved? How can a person determined never to need anyone let themselves actually need someone? How can you tell the difference between friendship and love? Benjamin Alire Saenz's novel is so beautifully poetic, so emotional—it's funny, heartbreaking, frustrating, and rewarding. Just like life is.

I thought the characters in this book were so beautifully drawn. While at times Ari's anger, depression, and withdrawal was a little frustrating, watching his character transition in a realistic way was worth it. I found myself re-reading paragraphs that I marveled at, both because of Saenz's use of language and because I was so moved.

Some have expressed frustration that the resolution of the book felt incomplete. While I might agree, it didn't take away from my enjoyment of this book at all. I do hope, however, given the response to this book, that Saenz might consider writing a follow-up, because I'd love to know what happens next.

I read a lot, and this year alone, have read some phenomenal books. Without a doubt, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is one of those.

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