Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

by Benjamin Alire Saenz
ages: 14+
First sentence: “One summer night I fell asleep, hoping the world would be different when I woke.”
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It’s the summer of 1987, and 15-year-old Aristotle — Ari; he hates his given name — is a bit lost. He’s the caboose in a Mexican-American family; he was born after his father returned from a tour in Vietnam. He’s got older twin sisters and an older brother, but since he’s in prison, no one talks about him. Ari’s got a whole lot of bottled up angsty feelings, and is quite directionless with his life.

Then he meets Dante, who is everything Ari is not: vibrant, interesting, talkative. They become friends — best friends — and slowly over the course of the year, that friendship blossoms into something more.

I think I need to just come to terms with the idea that the 1980s are historical fiction now. Though, I’m still at a loss as to why this couldn’t have been contemporary. It’s set in El Paso, and the world that they inhabited didn’t feel like it needed to be in the 80s. Their parents were incredibly accepting of Dante’s homosexuality, and the experimentation with drugs and alcohol could have happened just as well today as it did back then. There side plot that involves violence against Dante for being gay, but again: not necessarily something that needed to be in the 1980s. In fact, even with the violence, it seemed… tame. We have come a long way in the last 30 years.

Though — and maybe it was me — I never really found myself connecting with this book. I think part of it was that I don’t do 15-year-old boy angst well at all. I just found it hard to relate to Ari, to all his angst and his non-communication. And I’m not sure that the spare prose — as lovely as it was, sometimes — helped the situation much. While I understood Ari, and what he was going through, I found I couldn’t sympathize with him. And I do have to say that while I didn’t have a problem with the end, I didn’t think it was terribly convincing, either.

In short, it wasn’t a bad novel, just one that I don’t think was for me.

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