Review: Aristotle and Dante

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Simon & Schuster BFYR. 2012. Copy from library. Printz Honor Book.

The Plot: Summer, 1987. Angel Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza is fifteen, and it’s the start of another lonely, hot summer in El Paso. Bored, he goes to the local swimming even though he can’t swim.

“I can teach you how to swim.”

With those words, Ari meets Dante Quintana, also fifteen. And makes a friend. In some ways they are opposites — Ari is quiet, Dante talkative and confident. But they make each other laugh.

Through ups and downs, good times and bad, even long distance, their friendship endures and grows. Ari still feels alone, though; and when Dante tells Ari that Dante prefers kissing boys, Ari isn’t sure what to do. Or how he feels. Or what he wants.

The Good: Another terrific selection by this year’s Printz committee!

Ari tells the story, and oh, Ari is so — alone. He has such barriers up. Why? He has parents who love him, yes, but his father, a Vietnam Vet, is not a talker and Ari craves communication. Perhaps that explains part of the reason he likes Dante, because Dante and his family are talkers and huggers.

Ari’s family holds secrets, secrets that are danced around. His father’s nightmares from Vietnam. Ari’s older brother, now in prison, whose name and crime are never mentioned. Other secrets are ones that Ari doesn’t even guess at, but the secrecy colors his life and is part of the reason Ari isolates himself.

Aristotle and Dante is not just about the friendship between young men; it’s also about family. And love. And acceptance. And connections. And good people trying to do the right thing. And it’s the power of meeting someone, and being known, and kissing, and holding hands.

I also loved the diversity in Aristotle and Dante; both boys are second or third generation Mexican American. Dante talks about not being as Mexican as Ari, because Dante’s skin isn’t as dark. Mentions are made about the amount of Spanish that is (or isn’t) spoken at home, food that is eaten. Dante is the only child of a college professor and a psychologist; Ari’s parents are a high school teacher and mailman, and Ari is the youngest of four with several nieces and nephews. So there is diversity in terms of the main characters being Mexican American, but also in terms of what being a “Mexican American” means.

Dante likes boys; this is shown gradually, over the course of the book, as Dante himself comes to realize it. I don’t want to get spoilery here, but — well, here’s the thing. Sometimes, I watch movies with my mother and she turns to me and she asks, “I don’t want to know how it happens, but will this have a good ending? Will it be OK for that character?” And so I won’t tell the details, and I won’t say it’s easy, but I’ll say — it’ll be OK for Ari. It’ll be OK for Dante. It’ll be more than OK. And when I cried at the end of this book, it was in part happy tears.

The secondary characters are also so fully drawn that even when they are on the page for only a short time, I feel like I know them. That they are as real as Ari and Dante; but of course, it is Ari and Dante, and especially Ari, that is known best. And oh, the quotes! Because this is Ari’s story, all are him talking. “But love was something heavy for me. Something I had to carry.” “When do we start feeling like the world belongs to us?” “Maybe I wanted too much.” How could I not love Ari?

One last thing. As the story of Ari’s older brother was gradually revealed, as well as the depth of the impact of his crime and loss on the family, I had some “well what about thoughts” about Bernardo. In book print in my reading journal, I have “BUT WHAT ABOUT BERNARDO??” written down. I sternly told myself, this is Ari’s story, don’t be so demanding as a reader. And then — and then — what Aristotle and Dante delivered to me. It was perfect.

The combination of language; Ari; Ari’s beautiful family; Dante; and the warmth and goodness and compassion, even in the presence of hate; for all of these, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Teach Mentor Texts; Librarian of Snark; SLJ author interview.