Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz – A Review

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 bowled me over. I flew through it in a day. While there isn’t a huge amount in terms of plot in this book, the writing is so beautiful you can’t help but be swept up by it. I found it hard to put the book down and was breathless by the time I finished.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe tells the story of two best friends in El Paso, Texas in the late 1980s. The boys meet at their local swimming pool when Dante offers to teach Ari how to swim. The lyrical novel follows their relationship over the course of about two years as they move from childhood into young adulthood and confront all the challenges that this brings.

Ari and Dante are in many ways opposites. Dante is outgoing and endlessly curious, where Ari is reserved and keeps mainly to himself. They bond over their unusual names and shared struggle to fit in among their peers, but their relationship becomes complicated when one of the boys develops stronger feelings for the other that aren’t reciprocated.

Aristotle and Dante deals with the struggle to distinguish your own identity from the demands of the world around you. As Ari repeats on several occasions, “The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea.”

This book is as much a story about the struggle of self-discovery as a young person as it is a love story. The boys do a lot of their maturing while separated during the year Dante’s family spend living in Chicago. During this time we see Ari experience his first kiss, learn to drive and begin looking for information about his absent brother. He struggles with nightmares he himself doesn’t understand and fears he may be unknowable.

Ari’s only brother, Bernardo, has been imprisoned since Ari was four, and Ari has grown up in his shadow – or his lack thereof. There are no pictures of Bernardo in the house. His name is never brought up and for all intents and purposes his parents behave as though he never existed. His brother’s absence has become a fixation for Ari, who feels the pressure to be the perfect replacement son – and the fear that he might also be erased should he turn out to be a disappointment.

But Ari is an unreliable narrator regarding himself. He is as uncomfortable telling the reader about his feelings as he is talking to other characters about them. He can’t even face writing about himself in his own private journal. He loves to implement rules, perhaps because everything going on inside of himself feels so out of his control. While the reader can often interpret Ari’s feelings from his words and actions, Ari makes no such attempt to do so. He doesn’t want to be interpreted. He wants sincerely for his surface-level self to be all there is.

For Aristotle and Dante, discovering the secrets of the universe has nothing to do with the mysteries of space and time. It’s all about learning to understand the fathomless depths within themselves. It’s a little like learning to swim.

5 thoughts on “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz – A Review

  1. I’m glad you liked Aristotle and Dante so much! I also remember being absolutely entranced by the writing when I first read it, but somehow it was never one of those stories that particularly stuck with me 😅 Still, now that there’s a sequel coming, I might have to reread this and see how that changes how I see the story!

    Liked by 1 person

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