Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire SaenzAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Published by Simon and Schuster on February 21, 2012
Genres: Audiobook, Contemporary YA, General Fiction, Young Adult
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five-stars
Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

Oh god, oh god, oh god, talk about a book hangover. Usually when you think about book hangovers, they’re mostly mental and emotional, and while this is that, I swear I’m typing this review through a greenish haze of pain as my head throbs right above my eye from crying so much. But even if I know I’d be much more coherent if I wrote this in a day or two (or three), it’s imperative that I talk about Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. I absolutely must unleash the feels on other people. 

Let me lay it out flat: this book left me wrecked. I listened to it in audio book form, and I’m glad I did because there were moments I couldn’t see for the tears. But what made it even more poignant was that it wasn’t all depth and heartache. Sometimes I would be blubbering and a moment or a line would catch me out and I would choke because my body didn’t know whether to laugh or sob. Some moments I just plain busted a gut trying to laugh quietly. Others, I wanted to growl in frustration or anger. Let me tell you, don’t make the mistake I did and read it in a public venue. Let me also tell you, if you don’t read this book, it’ll be a mistake your soul will regret forever.

The two main characters in this book, Dante and Ari, are two beautiful, unique, intelligent, introspective boys who are very similar but also are so diametrically different in their outlooks and personalities. Dante is open about his feelings and his laughter and his thoughts, and while a bit of a know-it-all, he is generous with his knowledge and his opinions. Ari is quieter, with a tendency to bottle things up inside and to put himself down, but he has a tremendous capacity for caring.

Both boys are what you’d call good, decent boys; both love their parents despite not always understanding them, and they fear disappointing or shaming them. Both are outsiders among their peers and they struggle with their identities, but while in Dante’s case the struggle is to let others know who he is, in Ari’s case, it’s defining who he is to himself. And both are, in their own ways, terribly lonely and frequently sad. Especially Ari.

I don’t think I’m doing a good job of summing these characters up. I think you have to read the book to get the full sense of them, that jumble of emotion versus action, of thought versus words, of denial and acceptance. Part of it is that the characters are undergoing those tumultuous teenage years, good boys in a society that seems to reward the bad, boys struggling to find and make their place in the world. They’re foils to each other yet also united by a common core of contemplation and human decency. But that’s just one part. Another part is that they are complex, believable, relateable characters written in language so beautiful and clumsy and elegant and sharp at the same time that Aristotle and Dante will crack your heart and mind open like an egg while you helplessly watch your insides pour out of your in tears of sorrow and laughter.

Surrounding them are supporting characters who are just as real and raw as they are, if only perhaps less in the spotlight. I cried as much for Ari’s parents as I did for Ari, and I seriously fell in love with Dante’s folks. I even found love in my ruthlessly wrung heart for Gina and Suzy.

I seriously have nothing bad to say about this novel, and everything good, because it is just a beautiful, beautiful story. I literally am having to stop myself from getting teary eyed just remembering some of the best parts of this book. I ugly-cried so hard that now I’m going to have to put some cool compresses on my eyes to make sure I can go to work tomorrow morning and still look at least semi-professional. But seriously, anyone who reads this, please get this book. I also recommend the audio or ebook format because if you get a print copy, you are liable to get it soggy.

 

aristotle-and-dante-discover-the-secrets-of-the-universe-audible

Click on the image above to purchase the audiobook

A note on the Audible version:

I have to confess that I got this book on my Audible subscription because I saw it had been narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’m enough of a Hamilton fangirl that I saw his name and it was like the makers of Audible had pulled out a wand and yelled “Accio, credit card!” And fan-girling aside, Miranda did an excellent job of making the story come alive. I really enjoyed the authentic flavor he gave to the accents, even for the non-Mexican-American characters. But it was in the Latino characters that Miranda really shone.

The varying degrees of prominence of a Spanish accent in the voices of Ari, Dante, and the two boys’ parents said a lot about their culture and their mindsets and the level of their integration as far as the American melting pot was concerned, one that was established even before I got to the parts of the book where this was explained.

The truth is, though you never exactly forget that this book is being read by Lin-Manuel Miranda, especially if you’re a Hamilton fan, a few chapters in, it stops mattering. (Now, if you are a Hamilton fan, you might be gasping and wondering what kind of a fan am I and how dare I suggest that, but trust me, it’s true.) That’s because Miranda throws himself completely into the story, and both his voice acting and the story itself are so compelling and so real that you get sucked in and all that matters until you get to the end of this book is Ari and Dante and the people they love and who love them.

Although I laughed out loud and for a good long while when he read the line, “I sure as hell don’t want to study Alexander Hamilton”!

You can get the audiobook from Audible for $14.69 or for 1 Audible credit here.

 

Feel Factor Rating:

swoon-factor4

tear-factor4

laugh-factor3

intrigue-factor2

 

About Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Benjamin Alire Sáenz (born 16 August 1954) is an award-winning American poet, novelist and writer of children's books.

He was born at Old Picacho, New Mexico, the fourth of seven children, and was raised on a small farm near Mesilla, New Mexico. He graduated from Las Cruces High School in 1972. That fall, he entered St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, Colorado where he received a B.A. degree in Humanities and Philosophy in 1977. He studied Theology at the University of Louvain in Leuven, Belgium from 1977 to 1981. He was a priest for a few years in El Paso, Texas before leaving the order.

In 1985, he returned to school, and studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Texas at El Paso where he earned an M.A. degree in Creative Writing. He then spent a year at the University of Iowa as a PhD student in American Literature. A year later, he was awarded a Wallace E. Stegner fellowship. While at Stanford University under the guidance of Denise Levertov, he completed his first book of poems, Calendar of Dust, which won an American Book Award in 1992. He entered the Ph.D. program at Stanford and continued his studies for two more years. Before completing his Ph.D., he moved back to the border and began teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso in the bilingual MFA program.

His first novel, Carry Me Like Water was a saga that brought together the Victorian novel and the Latin American tradition of magic realism and received much critical attention.

In The Book of What Remains (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), his fifth book of poems, he writes to the core truth of life's ever-shifting memories. Set along the Mexican border, the contrast between the desert's austere beauty and the brutality of border politics mirrors humanity's capacity for both generosity and cruelty.

In 2005, he curated a show of photographs by Julian Cardona.

He continues to teach in the Creative Writing Department at the University of Texas at El Paso.

*Image and bio from Goodreads.

About Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a composer, lyricist, writer, and actor. He is known for the Tony and Grammy Award-winning In the Heights (composer-lyricist, actor) and the critically-acclaimed Hamilton (book, music and lyrics, in addition to playing the title role).

*Author's image is in the public domain.