Author: Benjamin Alire Saenz
Genre: Young adult, LGBTQ
My Rating: ★★★★
When the bookshop’s YA section becomes too congested with downcycled coming-of-age novels that jumped onto the latest bestsellers’ gravy train, you can’t really blame a reader for picking up something from a different shelf. You can’t blame him for shaking his head, for thinking that contemporary literature is turning into a cut-throat arena where money-making is king.
What you can blame him for is when he starts thinking we have reached a full-on holocaust, that there’s no single book out there worthy of being called a real treasure. Because in truth, if you dig deep enough, you will find them. I always dig, and I always find real gems…like when I found a copy of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.
The book follows the story of two Mexican-American teenage boys in the 1980s: Aristotle, a misfit who has a seemingly unlimited supply of anger at almost everything; and Dante, a bright and friendly bloke whose view of the world sits at the other side of Dante’s rationality spectrum. They strike an unlikely friendship and learn lessons they would never encounter were it not for the fact that they have each other.
The forte of this novel is its simplicity. It didn’t need complex plots or unnecessary frills to make it appear grander than it actually is. Aristotle is an honest narrator, albeit an unreliable one. You can feel his youth; you can feel the weight of his individuality in how he expresses everything from his Holden-esque thoughts and emotional auto-wrestlings to the angry truths about himself that he keeps hurling at the readers (“The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea.”). His introspections and the way he handled conversations with others is realistic. He is a confused teenager trying to find his own place in this world, trying to find love and acceptance that he couldn’t even give himself most of the time.
Obviously I think Aristotle’s characterization is well-handled, but I can’t say the same for Dante. Dante has basically the same “lit anatomy”, so to speak, as Aristotle, but he lacks a level of connection that readers can establish with the other boy. It’s a glaring flaw for me since he is one of the book’s title characters.
Be that as it may, the novel is still easy to read…perhaps unless you have a penchant for eye-rolling at the youngsters’ occasional angsty word vomit. There are times when the reader will have a been-there-done-that moment with Aristotle; there are times when the boy will string up words that can make any person—regardless of age—stop and wonder. I like that because that happens in real life, too.
At its core, the book teaches that you don’t have to bag a multi-hyphenated title (like, say, the narrator’s namesake) to discover the secrets of the universe. Sometimes you have to accept who you are. Sometimes you just have to look at your heart, and see all the worlds’ treasures cooped up there. Sometimes you just need to reach out and take the hand of the other person willing to stand next to you as you look into the same direction, brave and ready to take on the world. It may sound a lot like a bunch of cheese, but there’s less ooze when the story’s coming from someone like Aristotle.
A story of friendship, growing up, acceptance, and love, this powerful book is deserving of the awards and kudos it received. Four stars for a great read.