“This is my problem. I want other people to tell me how they feel. But I’m not so sure I want to return the favor.”
(Bruh, did I write this? Because this sounds exactly like me. Get out of my head).
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a book full of lines that dig right into your heart. A book full of kindness and kind characters. Of feelings and phrases that seem almost too profound to be coming from such a young character, and yet it doesn’t feel as inorganic as many young-adult novels with characters who don’t feel organically young, just an image or distorted memory of what being young was like.
This book may tread on some familiar ground, and perhaps not all that much “happens” in terms of plot. And yet… so much happens. And every time the young protagonist drives to the middle of the desert to look at the stars I can’t help but think that that is exactly what this book feels like. Staring at the immeasurable sky above, with nothing but space to be. A warm breeze on the wind to tell you that maybe you aren’t as alone or small as you feel looking at something so infinite.
And apparently, I have a lot of thoughts about this book, just given all the things it reminded me of and all the emotions it seemed to stir up in me.
As I was reading Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, a few people asked me how it was. Every time I would respond with, “It’s just so GENTLE!” Because it is: it deals with some common and sometimes difficult issues that people encounter in their lives, but does so in a very thoughtful way. As Alire Sáenz himself writes, “To be careful with people and with words was a rare and beautiful thing.”
The novel itself focuses on a Mexican-American teenage boy in the late 1980s named Aristotle, —who prefers to go by Ari—over the course of a few years of his young life. Told from Ari’s point of view, we get a good look into all the thoughts and feelings swimming in his head, many of which confuse him and he prefers to keep to himself: we get to see so much more than he is willing to show or share with anyone else, and in a way that feels like a gift. And I too resonate with that feeling of not being able to or willing to show what is inside to the external world. It can be scary, even as an adult (well, more like an emerging adult, I guess). Yet, I also find so much resonance with the other main character of the novel, Dante, who is another young boy who Ari becomes close friends with over the course of the novel. Dante is exuberant and full of life. He is able to find so much delight in the world and wears his emotions like badges of honor. And sometimes that is me. The two boys couldn’t be more different on the surface, and yet somehow they manage to fit perfectly together. The novel continues to follow their relationship as it grows, falters, hurts, and heals, over the course of a few summers together. Themes of internal wars, family relationships (particularly those between Ari, his parents, and Ari’s estranged brother who is in prison), Mexican-American identity, hate crimes, coming-of-age, and sexuality are also addressed and weave throughout the lives of the two boys.
Here’s the thing: I don’t know why I am always drawn to young adult novels, particularly when I often get so annoyed by the young characters, or feel like they are just imitations of what teenagers are like (hey, I’m not saying they can’t be profound or smart, but they often read as really… pretentious? I mean I tried to be poetic at that age and boy was it garbage. That’s not to say everyone is like that, though). And we all know teenagers have a tendency to be pretty dramatic about their emotions, which can get tiring after a while. But this didn’t feel forced or inauthentic to me. Well, maybe there was the odd line or two I side-eyed, but that’s not saying much. And perhaps at times I thought that maybe Dante seemed like a bit of a caricature of a character, but not to the point that I was irritated by it. Really, the biggest issue with characters I had was the parents, because sometimes I just considered if I have ever met parents who speak to and have interactions with their children like the ones in this novel do. It’s hard to say, and it left me wondering. However, they are so kind and so caring and accepting, yet complete with their own struggles and issues that you cannot help but feel like they belong so completely in the world presented.
But regardless of this, the characters and how they are written and how they express their internal selves are the real strength of this novel, and something that drew me in right away. Because when it comes to the plot, at some point I got the feeling that I knew exactly where everything was headed, and that it could end in one of two ways. Yet rather than feeling overused to me, the overall plot just felt familiar, and almost comfortable to me. I realize that it is hard for me to write about this without some serious personal bias (can we ever write a review without some sort of bias?), but I was personally glad by how this story unfolded. Because so many books and movies today with LGBT+ themes are inherently tragic, and I hate it. Is that what my life (as a bi individual) is? Destined to be full of heartache and pain? Of hiding and being broken as soon as I let the greater world see who I am? It’s like Ari says, “Another secret of the universe: Sometimes pain was like a storm that came out of nowhere. The clearest summer could end in a downpour. Could end in lightning and thunder.”
But Alire Sáenz doesn’t do that. Really, the whole thing reminded me a lot of the Brazilian film The Way He Looks (Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho, in Portuguese). If you haven’t seen this film, I would very much recommend, as it is also very soft, gentle, and touching, and has the same feel as this book does. See, that’s what I mean about feeling familiar: it’s like I’ve seen another version of this story before, but it’s presented in a way that is emotive enough to be able to connect to in some way. And it’s also not incredible sexualized in the way that a lot of LGBT+ stories are. This reminds me of how Troye Sivan describes the story he presents in his song “Wild” (as a part of the “Blue Neighborhood” trio of songs, it’s called?), in that Ari and Dante’s story is about the young love we may find that is simply innocent and sweet, but still so meaningful and powerful.
And boy do I connect with a lot of the emotions and feelings presented in this novel. I relate to the struggle of really coming to understand what we are feeling inside of us (I think we can all relate to that in a lot of ways).
Of wanting people to let us in, but not being willing to do that in return. Of coming to learn new things about people that we never knew before, and wondering if we can truly ever understand someone else in their entirety.
“I got to thinking that poems were like people. Some people you got right off the bat. Some people you just didn’t get—and never would get”.
Of being afraid of what we feel inside of us, and trying to push them away, but ultimately getting angry and pushing those who give you those feelings away instead. And this hurts, but maybe you can heal at some point.
“Maybe we just lived between hurting and healing.”
These are lines that we may walk every day. I know what it feels like to slowly come to know yourself and to not be certain that you even like who this person is. To question who you are when you come to find new facets of your being.
“And I thought that maybe there were ghosts inside of me that I hadn’t even met yet. They were there. Lying in wait.”
Of being open with some but wanting to hide parts of yourself with certain people: in particular, my parents. They will more than likely be accepting of me, and yet like Dante, I feel like if I reveal particular aspects of my sexuality to my family they will be disappointed, and even if they are not, it ultimately changes how people see you. And that is a scary thing to think about.
I know what it’s like to have feelings for friends that they cannot reciprocate because of who they are, and you try to not be hurt, but it still burns inside. But you can’t blame them, and it makes you angry at yourself that you want to blame them, but also angry at them for making you think these things. We are constantly moving through life and discovering new things, and it changes us. And sometimes these changes are good and sometimes they are bad. And sometimes we would rather live in a world of not knowing than face what we might find inside of ourselves. In these ways, although I am not in the same stage of life as the boys in this book, I still see myself in them in many ways. There are emotions here that I think a lot of people can relate to, not necessarily in the same context, but they are the same feelings nonetheless. Do you see what I mean when I say I have a lot of thoughts about this book/inspired by what I read within it?
So the ultimate question remains: did I like this book? Yes I did. As I mentioned earlier, it is the embodiment of staring up at the night sky in the middle of the desert, with a warm breeze surrounding you. I ate it up. I wanted more. My heart feels like it has been wrapped in a hug. So sweet. So gentle. So pure. So beautiful.
Oh, and one last thing: I didn’t realize that Lin-Manual Miranda is the reader for the audio book version of this story. Which is awesome, and also somewhat hilarious and ironic given that one of the lines he has to say is literally, “I don’t want to study Alexander Hamilton.” (Can you believe this??)
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