“Words Were Different When They Lived Inside You:” Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe”

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The best thing about YA literature is that it doesn’t muddle itself in its language. It’s an accessible genre–though that’s really not the right word for what it is–which is why it surprises me that not everyone takes advantage of it. One of the best feelings in the world is picking up a book and being able to get its meaning because the author didn’t decide to be coy about it.

I bought “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” because it’s been on my reading list for a while, and because a lot of people have told me that it’s one of those books I should read if I ever get the chance. Buying books can be a gamble (there are a lot of ones out there that you frankly will not like), but $11 for a paperback nowadays isn’t as bad as it could be, and in the case of “Aristotle and Dante,” it paid off. It took me a little longer to read than watching a movie would have, and for two dollars less.

Like many novel that have to do with growing up, “Aristotle and Dante” is told in the first person point of view. Depending on your own reading preferences, this could be bothersome–there are some genres where I know I cringe at the first person–but I’m not sure this novel would have had the same emotional impact on me (or many other readers) had it been written in the third person. From the get-go, I trusted Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s narrative choices, partially because I wanted to like the book, but also because as the writer, he gave me a good reason to. As a reader, it’s worth being wary of whether or not an author’s selling you the real deal or trying to fake it poorly. Sáenz’s prose is nice, and despite dealing with complicated subjects and people, it does not get complicated in itself. You don’t always have to confuse your readers when you’re making profound statements. Sometimes simplicity will do.

Because of this, the story flows evenly, despite the passage of time. You’re aware that a year is passing, but rather than the blank pages presented by Stephenie Meyer in “New Moon” or the simultaneously too much and too little information provided by Madeline Miller in “The Song of Achilles,” Sáenz is able to really capture the strange, drifting feeling that comes with attending high school. There are some developments during the school year, but they’re gradual, and many of Ari’s days pass more or less the same as one another. This isn’t a bad thing, and I actually think it might be one of the more difficult things a writer has to be able to convey in their writing; it just resembles the truth of how time sometimes seems to flow.

The synopsis on the back cover kind of sensationalizes the actual events of the novel, which is a shame since the way it’s phrased honestly could push away readers. Ari and Dante’s friendship doesn’t develop “against all odds;” they meet each other at the town pool, and both of their families are glad that they finally have someone to call a friend. The synopsis also makes it sound as though their differences in skin tone are going to drive a wedge between them socially, which is also not really the case.

That’s not to say that Sáenz doesn’t as some very important questions about race, ethnicity, and cultural heritage, because he does–Dante spends a lot of time thinking he’s not quite Mexican enough, and I feel as though there are probably a lot of people who grow up feeling divorced from their family background. Ari and Dante’s mother spend a noticeable amount of time in the novel affirming that particular aspect of Dante’s identity, which is important for people to be able to see.

While the novel is about falling in love (sort of), it’s ultimately one that asks the same question that all people have at one point or another (or multiple points) in their lifetime: “Who am I?” That identity is multifaceted for everyone, and is explored in different ways in the novel, including Dante’s concerns about his ethnic identity and both Dante and Ari’s feelings towards their sexuality. Ari struggles figuring himself out through the entire book, only really being sure of things by the end. Identity takes more than just one summer to figure out, which anyone who’s been a teenager and remembers what it meant to be on the “verge of seventeen” knows.

The important things to know going into “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” include the fact that it takes place between 1987 and 1988, it’s set in Texas, that there are gay characters who are out and treated poorly because of their sexuality, and that there is homophobic violence. That said, it’s still an incredibly warm and opening story–it’s one of those novels that feels a lot like a supportive and dry house (though I do have major issues with Ari’s brother). At the end of it all, there’s a good sense of completion, which is always necessary in a novel.

I believe a sequel was announced, though I’m not sure how necessary it is. Some novels end at a perfect point where you don’t need more information, and you’re willing to let it settle as is, and I feel like this is one of them. In any case, “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” is an award winning book, and for a good reason. The characters feel real, and books like this–books that end more or less happily despite there having been some painful conflict–need to exist for LGBT+ (and especially young LGBT+) readers. It’s important to know that Ari and Dante can end up at the end of the novel happy and, you know, not dead.

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Author: jillboger

Part time writer. Editor-in-Chief for the Bridge volume 13, former EIC for The Odyssey at BSU. My glasses protect my secret identity.

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