Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

ImageIn 1987, no one was gay. Not openly, anyway. Coming out meant shunning, ridicule, bullying, and, perhaps, beatings. If a teenage boy became aware that he was not attracted to girls, he hid his feelings from everyone, perhaps including himself. What does it take to crack open the secrets we hide from ourselves?

Dante Quintana ran trustingly toward life, arms and heart wide open and vulnerable. He was the only child of his loving and demonstrative parents, and his father was the only professor of Mexican descent at the university in El Paso. He taught English literature. Dante wondered if it was possible to be authentically Mexican if he couldn’t speak Spanish. He was eager to read and discuss everything.

Aristotle Mendoza lived his life inside himself as much as possible. His father suffered from PTSD after his time in Vietnam, and he and Aristotle both experienced recurring nightmares. Ari’s much-older brother was in prison, and no one would tell him why. Ari had been four years old at the time and had been sent away while the turmoil was going on. Now, Ari nurtured a smoldering anger against his parents for keeping him in the dark about the brother he had idolized, and he buttoned all of his feelings inside so tightly that they burst out in his dreams.

The summer they were fifteen, these very different boys met at the public pool. Dante suspected that Ari couldn’t swim, and he offered to teach him. Thus began a complex and evolving relationship that we follow for the next few critical years of the two young men’s lives. We experience the story through Ari’s perspective, except for the letters that Dante writes when they are apart for a year. Ari is much more in tune with his Mexican heritage, loves wearing the same Carlos Santana t-shirt day after day, asks for a ’57 Chevy pickup for his birthday and teases his mother that he will put low-rider hydraulics on it. He threatens his parents that he will join a gang, since, he says, that’s what Mexican boys do. Dante is like a whole new universe for him. Dante uses words Ari’s never heard before, like “inscrutable,” and he insists that Ari read great books and talk about them. One day, a group of boys shoot a bird for fun, and Dante is devastated. Ari— who has never walked away from a fight and is perfectly happy to get one started— is ready to flatten all of the boys, but Dante is shocked by Ari’s willingness to fight and his total lack of fear. Ari cannot admit to himself that his desire to defend Dante is anything more than friendship.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz gathered up all kinds of awards for this painful and beautiful young adult novel at January’s ALA Children’s Media Awards ceremonies. Besides a Printz Honor medal, it also won the Stonewall Award for the best LGBT book of the year, the Pura Belpré award for best work affirming the Latino culture, and was a Top Ten choice for the YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) Best Fiction for Young Adults list. My only regret is that all the medals cover up the appealing and meaningful artwork on the cover. If you haven’t read a young adult novel since The Outsiders, you are missing some incredible writing, and this is certainly among the best. The structure of the novel, spanning several years as it does, keeps the reader interested as the boys move through adolescence, unfolding slowly but with major events marking each new phase in their lives. Every sentence is finely crafted, and I went back and re-read many passages just to savor the language again. The characters do speak in a realistic, everyday manner, but Sáenz makes every word significant.

This is a jewel of a novel, and although it deals with controversial issues, I highly recommend Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe for older teens and adults.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. My opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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