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

Goodreads summary:

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.


Aristotle and Dante is beautifully written, in a style that doesn’t flaunt its skill right away. Description is sparse, and the dialogue is stripped to the bones, like the desert that surrounds Aristotle’s life. It’s an inspiring book to read as a writer, and a reminder that good writing doesn’t mean jamming in every trick you know from the word ‘go’. Maybe it’s because of this skilful essentialism that it took me so long to realise just how unrealiable Aristotle is as a narrator – and in a deliberate way that we rarely see in recent YA fiction. Unless you’re looking for it from the beginning, the climax almost comes as a surprise, managing to beautifully overlay the story you’ve just read with the narrative that was missing as Aristotle’s anxiety and loneliness attempted to cast him as the natural successor of Adrian Mole.

My only issue was that the parents repeat one fact as proof that Aristotle fancies Dante: that he risked his life for him. It didn’t ring true to me, and I felt myself mentally defending the value and strength of friendship. And it probably wasn’t the intention, but for me it felt like it was erasing aroace experience – the assumption that you would only move instinctively to save a friend, risking your own life in the process, if you were in love with them. My experience is that friendships are stronger, more stable and more complex than romantic ones, so I’m afraid that at the climactic moment, the novel lost me.

I do appreciate though, that it’s not for me. This story isn’t designed to comfort or inspire me personally. It’s the story of a young Mexican boy struggling with growing up when the world he lives in is different from the world of his parents. Aristotle struggles to connect with his father, because of his father’s PTSD from the Vietnam War. And he’s suffocating in a world that hasn’t yet shown him the narratives he needs to work out who he is. Dante is looking for those narratives too, but he has the advantages of affectionate, communicative parents, and an emotional fluency beyond his years. Dante needs Aristotle to bring him down to earth. Aristotle needs Dante to teach him how to dream.


Two gay Mexican boys in Texas.

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