This book. THIS BOOK…
Made my heart so happy!
Prior to purchasing the audiobook version of ‘Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe’ by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, from audible, which is a decision I’ll get to in a minute, I saw this book everywhere. Whether on bookstagram and Goodreads, book blogs or sites like Bookriot. This book was everywhere. Whenever I saw a fellow bookworm asking other fellow readers on the internet for book recommendations, this book was on practically every long or short-list. And I just had to know! The cover is pretty, yes. I couldn’t help but scan spoiler free reviews that were full of positive boasting in regards to this novel, and the importance of it in the LGBTQA YA novel community.
Like I mentioned earlier, I bought the audiobook version before I cancelled my Audible subscription (sorry, Audible, but you cost a lot!) in July. I wrote a post a few months ago about my love/hate relationships with audiobooks, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. If the narrator doesn’t grab me, I find it hard to listen and turn off my thoughts and stay focused on the story in my ears. This one, however, was different. The narrator of this audiobook is none other than Grammy/Tony/Pulitzer Prize Winning writer/actor/performer Lin-Manuel Miranda. Honestly, if I hadn’t fallen into the wonderful black hole that is Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda back in April, I may not have purchased this. That isn’t to say if I wasn’t into Hamilton I’d write this novel off, because it’s wonderful as it’s own simply on paper. But listening to this with Lin at the helm really pulled me in. I would put in my headphones and just zone out because I just find his voice in general very comforting and nice to listen to. Is that creepy? I hope not. Lin was wonderful with his performances of Ari and Dante. He really brought the characters to life for me, so big props to Simon and Schuster for this. It was also recently revealed that Benjamin Aloee Sáwnz will be releasing a sequel and I’m hoping so much that Lin narrates it!
It’s important to know that this novel actually takes place in the 1980’s, so the events that transpire and come to fruition are doing so in a less progressive time culturally. Which also leads me to note that this story takes place in the ’80’s despite actually being written in the ’80’s and without too many references to 1980’s pop-culture that make the reader yell, “We get it! It’s the ’80’s and you love Madonna and Back to The Future!” which is something I sense in a lot of YA novels as of late now that the 1980’s is becoming the hot, “old” decade to write about.
Now, onto the summary. The POV of the novel is told through Aristotle or Ari, Mendoza. Ari is a 15-year old Mexican-American. He is the youngest of three siblings: two sisters who have grown up and moved away as well as an older brother who we learn is in prison. Ari’s parent’s live as if Ari’s brother doesn’t exist, which becomes a recurring struggle for Ari throughout the novel. When we meet Ari we learn three things: he’s bored, miserable, and lonely. Ari doesn’t shy away from telling his mother he doesn’t have any friends, which Ari pretends doesn’t bother him, but we already know deep down it does.
To cease Ari’s complaining, his mother suggests he go to the local swimming pool and despite not knowing how to swim, Ari agrees. At the swimming pool, Ari meets a boy who introduces himself as Dante Quintana. It’s clear to Ari that Dante is a pretty good swimmer, so when Dante offers to teach Ari how to swim Ari accepts. The pair soon become best friends. They bond over books and reading. Dante likes to draw and he hates to wear shoes. Dante introduces Ari to poetry and classic literature. Despite the two of them being the best of friends their differences are clear: Dante struggles with his Mexican identity yet, his relationship with his parents is much more tight-knit than Ari’s. Ari admires the relationship between Dante and his parents because it’s the kind of relationship where you’d feel comfortable talking to either parent about anything. Ari’s is the opposite. Ari’s mother tends to constantly see Ari as a little boy. His mother is very conventional and his father doesn’t speak to Ari that much. Ari knows that this is because his father served in the Vietnam War and he doesn’t like rehashing his memories to anyone. This makes Ari angry and wedges more of a distance between them.
One night Dante invites Ari to accompany him and his parents to the desert to look at the stars. Looking at the stars, Dante tells Ari that one day he’ll discover the secrets of the universe and Ari knows that of anyone could make it possible it would be Dante. One afternoon Ari and Dante see a group of boys with a BB gun shooting birds. They confront the boys and together bury the sparrow the boys shot. After the burial, Ari comes down with the flu. The flu brings Ari to have fever dreams. He dreams about calling to his imprisoned brother from across a river and searching for Dante and his father in the pouring rain. As his parent’s nurse him back to health, Dante visits Ari regularly, choosing to sketch Ari while he’s recovering. Ari asks to see the sketches but Dante refuses.
After Ari recovers fully from the flu, Dante reveals that his father accepted a new job in Chicago. Ari is left wondering how the following school year is going to turn out for him. That same day the boys notice and injured bird lying in the street in the pouring rain. As
Dante runs out to save it, Ari sees a car coming down the street, failing to slow down. Ari runs out and pushed Dante and the bird out of the way from the oncoming car, saving his life. Ari wakes up to both of his arms and legs in casts. Dante, becomes flooded with guilt, but Ari tells him that there are new rules he has to follow: he can no longer talk about the accident and he isn’t allowed to thank him or cry. This prompts Dante to cry, which angers Ari.
Ari’s anger brings his mother to suggest him to see a therapist. Ari tells her that he’ll see a therapist when she starts opening up about what happened to Ari’s brother. Despite the accident making Ari lash out, it begins to bring Ari and his father closer. Ari reads ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ while his father reads ‘War and Peace’. Ari concludes that maybe this can be their version of “talking”. This new connection between Ari and his father brings his father to open up about his own nightmares. Ari finally begins to feel connected to his father especially when his father tells him he’d buy Ari a pickup truck for his sixteenth birthday and teach him how to drive. These future plans of getting a truck and getting his casts of cheer Ari up, until the day comes when Dante leaves for Chicago. On their last day together before his departure for Chicago, Dante reveals a secret to Ari: the two things he loves the most are swimming and Ari. Ari tells him not to say things like that, even if they are true.
This new revelation from Dante brings Ari to think about who Dante really is and who he really is as well. The two promise to stay friends and send each other letter while Dante is in Chicago and until he returns. The beginning of the new school year causes Ari to think more about the accident and why he did what he did to save Dante. Sometimes he wishes he didn’t save Dante after all. The day Ari gets his casts off he decides to take a walk by Dante’s house. He goes to the park and finds a stray dog who he takes home. He names her Legs because when he got his casts off.
The new school year begins and Ari’s fellow classmates Gina Navarro and Susie Byrd prompt Ari for answers about the accident, Ari retreats further back into his thoughts and confusions about Dante. On his sixteenth birthday, Ari receives his pickup truck. He devotes his new cast-less freedom to learning how to drive and writing in his journal. He even gets a job at a local restaurant and becoming friends with Susie and Gina. After getting his license, Ari finds himself driving out to the desert to get drunk on beer and look at the stars. Part of this sneaky behavior is due to Dante’s overflowing letters about how he kissed a girl at a party in Chicago and tried beer and smoked pot for the first time. In a way, Ari doesn’t want to miss out part of his curiosity stems from the absence of Dante in his life. In a later letter Dante reveals to Ari that instead of kissing girls he’d rather be kissing boys.
Summer arrives and so does Dante. One night Dante and Ari drive out to the desert to look at the stars. Dante reveals that his mother and pregnant and admits that he hopes she has a boy so his brother can marry a woman and have children. Dante tells Ari he wants to tell his parent’s that he’s gay, but he’s afraid. Ari tells Dante that his sexuality will not change their relationship and that he’ll stick by him. When Dante gets a job at the local drugstore, he tells Ari one night that he has feelings for a boy he works with named Daniel. This immediately draws Ari to have a dislike for Daniel. He doesn’t know why he feels this way other than Daniel rubbing him the wrong way.
In the middle of the summer, Ari’s mother leaves him and his father to visit his Aunt Ophelia for a few days in Tucson, Arizona. However, her visit is cut short when she calls and tells Ari and his father Ophelia had a fatal stroke. Ari and his father drive to Tucson and it’s after the funeral that Ari’s mother reveals to Ari what happened to his brother. She tells him he was arrested for murder when he was fifteen after he killed a prostitute he hired after she revealed to him she was a transvestite. This imprisoned his brother for life. When Ari returns home with the newfound information about his brother, he learns that Dante was sent to the hospital after he was jumped by a group of guys after they found him kissing Daniel in an alleyway. This infuriates Ari and prompts him to find out who the boys that jumped Dante were. He learns that one of boys names is Julian and he works at an auto-shop, Ari goes there and threatens to fight Julian.
Ari’s mother is afraid that Ari is going to end up like his brother after she learns of his fight with Julian. Ari reveals the reason that Dante was jumped was because Dante is gay. Ari also learns that Daniel fled instead of helping or stopping the boys from jumping Dante. When Mr. Quintana asks Ari why Dante was jumped, he tells him that Dante is gay but he did not tell them out of fear fro their reactions. Mr. Quintana’s reaction is one of support for his son. Mrs. Quintana says she believed Daniel was just a stand in for Ari. Ari doesn’t know what to think of this. When Ari returns home his mother calls a family meeting. During the meeting Ari’s father finally tells Ari his an incident from Vietnam that continues to haunt him. He tells Ari that like this incident, which prompted him to run from it, is the same thing that Ari is doing with Dante. When Ari doesn’t quite understand, his mother tells him that he was jealous of Daniel and that Ari loves Dante as much as Dante loves Ari. Ari is at first ashamed and afraid his parent’s are ashamed of him as well, but a revelation about Ari’s Aunt Ophelia shows Ari that his parent’s are anything but ashamed of their son.
After contemplation, Ari comes to realize that his parents are right. Ari realizes that him saving Dante from the oncoming car and his act of revenge on Julian for jumping Dante was him coming to terms with his own feelings for Dante. Dante tells Ari that he isn’t sure if he can just be friends with Ari anymore. That being friends with him would be too difficult for him. When Ari reveals his feelings to Dante they kiss and Ari realizes that while he was searching for the secrets of the universe, he forgot to look inside himself. His answers for those secrets were with him and he realizes he’s loves Dante since the moment they met at the pool that one summer day.
This story was just wonderful and beautiful. Dante has this outlook on life that is both positive and romantic. It was funny at times to see Ari, who has a darker and more sarcastic view on life mesh and sometimes come to a head with Dante’s. Dante drew Ari from his comfort zone. He introduced him to new things and new ways to be. This novel creates an intersection between being a queer person as well as being Latino. These stories are important. All queer literature is important. When teens and adults have ways to connect with literature on a personal level, reading about characters with different sexualities and nationalities create a safe space for people to relate and simply be themselves. In these stories queer people of color can find a deeper connection to a story’s characters. Often when I read books with queer characters, it’s no secret that a large amount of these characters are white and middle class. While the understanding and coming to terms with one’s sexuality is universal, it’s important to remember that the struggles and acceptance of a person’s sexuality is not limited to white people.
Although Dante is more open about his sexuality, he still feels he doesn’t have a connection to his Mexican identity. He tells Ari at one point that he “doesn’t feel Mexican because he likes boys.” Ari replies that he doesn’t “think liking boys is an American invention.” This not only allows Dante and Ari to possess their queer identities, but prompts them to know that they have an equal place in the world just as much as any other queer person. Regardless of their nationality or skin color. They are equally important individuals. Not only does queerness NOT define a person, but it is also NOT an American made way of being. It’s an anyone anywhere and whoever, way of being.
“What do you love, Ari? What do you really love?”
“I love the desert. God, I love the desert.”
“It’s so lonely.”
Dante didn’t understand. I was unknowable.” –Benjamin Alire Sáenz,
“I love swimming”
“I know,” I said.
“I love swimming,” he said again. He was quiet for a little while. And then he said, “I love swimming—and you.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Swimming and you, Ari. Those are the things I love the most.” –Benjamin Alire Sáenz,
“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.” – Benjamin Alire Sáenz,
“I wanted to tell them that I’d never had a friend, not ever, not a real one. Until Dante. I wanted to tell them that I never knew that people like Dante existed in the world, people who looked at the stars, and knew the mysteries of water, and knew enough to know that birds belonged to the heavens and weren’t meant to be shot down from their graceful flights by mean and stupid boys. I wanted to tell them that he had changed my life and that I would never be the same, not ever. And that somehow it felt like it was Dante who had saved my life and not the other way around. I wanted to tell them that he was the first human being aside from my mother who had ever made me want to talk about the things that scared me. I wanted to tell them so many things and yet I didn’t have the words. So I just stupidly repeated myself. “Dante’s my friend.”
My rating: 5/5
P.S I fully recommend anyone interested in this book to listen to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s splendid narration of the audiobook.