Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Benjamin Alire Saenz
Simon and Schuster, 2012 359 pgs
Aristotle (Ari) is a fifteen-year-old Mexican-American loner growing up in a small town in Texas in the 1980's. One day, while bored at the pool, he meets a boy named Dante, who offers to teach him how to swim. Dante is nothing like Ari. He is outgoing, enthusiastic about life and comfortable in his own skin. Dante becomes Ari's first friend and the two become inseparable. When Dante almost gets hit by a car while trying to rescue a bird, Ari pushes him to safety, severely injuring himself in the process. Dante moves with his family to Chicago for a year and Ari misses him. He gets a dog, his license, two new sort-of friends, and a really cool truck. What he really misses during that year besides Dante is a relationship with his father (a Vietnam vet with communication deficiencies) and his brother. Ari's brother was sent to prison years ago and no one in the family talks about him. Ari finally must open communication with his parents, even though it is painful for them, to help him fill in the holes of his past. Dante returns from Chicago and the friendship resumes. After getting severely beaten for being gay, Dante lands in the hospital. Ari freaks out and goes after the guys who hurt his friend. This incident makes Ari question if his own anger management issues are similar to that of his violent brother, as well as the depth and nature of his feelings for Dante.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a coming of age story. In parts it is quiet and thoughtful, but never is boring. The plot moves along and exciting things happen (both main characters land in the hospital at different times for spectacular reasons). Ari is clearly a different person from beginning to end and we experience his growth right along with him. We figure out that he is in love with Dante before he does and it is with great relief when he finally gets there. Both characters are Latino, an underrepresented group in teen fiction, and struggling with cultural identity, although that is not the main focus of the story. The book is set in the 1980's. Although the characters don't have personal computers or cell phones and have more leisure time on their hands than today's kids because of it, the story could have been set in the present. I think the author chose to set the story in the 80's perhaps to reflect his own experience (write what you know) or to demonstrate Ari's reluctance to acknowledge his feelings towards Dante. Today's kids are more exposed to different sexual orientations and there is less of a social stigma than there was thirty years ago. Ari's parents were extremely cool and helpful with his discovery of his feelings for Dante, which would be extraordinary for the 1980's. This book is not for everyone, but is an important book just the same. The title is a bit deceiving (I thought it had philosophical themes and therefore put off reading it) and it may have a hard time finding its audience. Aristotle and Dante won a Printz honor and Pure Belpre award for best Latino fiction, both if which it deserved. Statistically, LGBT teens have a much higher suicide rate than straight teens. In the news this week a transgender teen stepped in front of a tractor trailer because her parents could not recognize who she was. We need to create a world where our young people feel safe and accepted. Aristotle and Dante is a step in the right direction.