Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

In this quiet, award winning novel, Benjamin Alire Sáenz explores the poignant depths of friendship and self discovery. In a story that roams among issues of  family trauma, sexual exploration, and love (of every variety) Alire Sáennz’s unceasingly commits to telling the truth. Never does he  sway from drawing his two main characters as anything other than fully conceived and genuine young men struggling with core issues at the center of who they are and who they want to be.

Aristotle (Ari for short) chronicles the events of two pivotal years in his  friendship with Dante. Both are Latino boys in El Paso, Texas in 1987, but their lives are far from alike. Ari’s family is formal and quiet. Dante’s is open and boisterous. Although their relationship begins with the ease and honesty one rarely finds in real life, there is nothing unnatural about the progress it makes in the lazy summer afternoons. When one boy saves the other from being struck by a speeding car, getting his own legs crushed in the process, their relationship strains to the point of breaking, the “hero” doesn’t like being the center of attention; nor  does he want to think about what his willingness to sacrifice himself for his friend means about his feelings for him. He turns inward, away from the world, even as the other one reaches out.

Alire Sáenz takes his time, allowing the story to unfold in the natural rhythms of summer. When Dante moves away for a school year, so his father can teach at a prestigious university in Chicago, Ari isn’t quite sure what to think of the honesty, awkwardness, and underlying questions of Dante’s letters. While Dante “experiments” with masturbation, kissing girls, and drugs, Ari struggles to maintain the friendship long-distance (this is an internet and texting-free era, remember). Although few of today’s teens will understand the lack of interest in “broadcasting” one’s life, Ari’s discomfort at communicating with anyone genuinely arises from his own struggles at home and with his peers.

A side story involving Ari’s missing, imprisoned brother, Bernardo, provides an undercurrent of shame, that, at first, seems to bear little relevance to the story. Deep into the novel, however, the price of the family’s silence and  secrecy goes a long way to explaining Ari’s anger, frustration, and fear at what Dante is trying to reveal to him without actually coming out and telling him.

While the language can be strong at times, and the issues are deeply personal, Alire Sáenz handles the emotions and struggle of two boys coming to understand their feelings for one another with honesty and truth, never drawing either character as one-dimensional or stereotypical. This is not a story only for those struggling with their own sexuality. Dante and Ari’s story will feel familiar no matter what a reader’s sexual preference. It’s insights into the friendship and love ring true about all relationships and is well worth reading.

Sex- S

Violence – V

Troubling Behavior – ?

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