Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publishing Date: 2012
Number of Pages: 359 pages
Genre: Romance, Young Adult, Bildungsroman
Dante can swim. Ari can’t. Dante is articulate and self-assured. Ari has a hard time with words and suffers from self-doubt. Dante gets lost in poetry and art. Ari gets lost in thoughts of his older brother who is in prison. Dante is fair skinned. Ari’s features are much darker. It seems that a boy like Dante, with his open and unique perspective on life, would be the last person to break down the walls that Ari has built around himself. But against all odds, when Ari and Dante meet, they develop a special bond that will teach them the most important truths of their lives, and help define the people they want to be. But there are big hurdles in their way, and only by believing in each other – and the power of their friendship – can Ari and Dante emerge stronger on the other side.
I have often expressed my aversion towards the young adult fiction genre because of the formulaic approach to the storytelling. However, due to the glitzy way young adult fiction has been marketed over the years, it is inevitable that some would pique my interest. There were some that proved to be great and some that were just purely gimmick. One of the young adult pieces that have truly astounded me in recent memory is Benjamin Alire Sáenz’ Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.
Here’s a funny thing about the book. I first encountered it on the bookstore and as always, I barely had any iota on what it was about or who the author was. At first, it was the book title that has caught my attention. When I looked it over, my curiosity was further piqued because of the number of accolades the book has won. Without further thought, I purchased the book but unfortunately, it took me sometime before I could read the book and when I did, I was beyond astounded.
The problem with my life wat that it was someone else’s idea.
Set in 1987 El Paso, Texas, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe relates the story of Aristotle and Dante, two teenagers who met on the public swimming pools one scorching summer day. Dante, who was adept at swimming, taught Aristotle how to swim. They instantly hit it off and became friends. As they became closer, they started learning things about each other. They were as different as two individuals could be but it is in these differences that they found comfort in each other.
In a very rare moment apropos young adult fiction, I fell for the book because of its simple structure and storytelling. It was my first time reading a Sáenz novel but I was immediately drawn in. He was simply outstanding in laying out the groundworks for his award-winning literary piece. His narrative flowed seamlessly like a diaphanous silk on the naked flesh. In a world where a new young adult fiction is published nearly every day, Sáenz’ masterpiece is a towering one.
The novel dealt, expectedly, with a plethora of subjects about young adults and teenagers. However, it was its take on finding one’s identity that made the narrative soar. The book explored different types of identity crises, ranging from personal to racial identities. The interesting but sensitive subject was dealt with in a very considerate manner. What made it more fascinating is the way Sáenz obscured the subject, keeping the reader in tenterhook for the most part. There were hints but it was until the end that everything became crystal clear. The overall lot was reminiscent of Cecilia Ahern’s Dear Rosie.
The book also did great in dealing with the subject of sexuality. Basically, the book is about homosexuality. One has to remember that the book is set in a period and a place when and where homosexuality is not generally accepted. Undertones of discrimination can be found all over the book. Sáenz was astounding in his depiction of the shift from a more conservative stance to a more liberal stance towards homosexuality and homosexual relationships. Sáenz fused sexuality and identity in a fascinating tale that brims with love and life.
The beauty of the book lies in the main character’s development and growth as the narrative moves along. Aristotle and Dante were not treated as children, but rather as adults whose are free to think and feel on their own. Moreover, Sáenz proved to be a master in wriggling out deeply buried emotions. Watching these emotions, both the characters’ and the reader’s, grow is scintillating. The journey to finding one’s self is a revealing journey. Sáenz made the readers feel part of this journey, through every trough and crest. This is one of the book’s major successes. It is no wonder that it earned quite a positive response from literary pundits and from Goodreads readers as well. Many a young adult fiction fail to impress readers because they don’t involve the readers in this journey.
Sáenz used a very effective and nostalgic atmosphere to build his narrative around. The period and the setting of the book maximized this nostalgia and enriched the overall context of the story. But it was Sáenz’ storytelling that made the narrative truly soar. In the book, he had the uncanny ability of making the readers absorb every detail. The book was lyrically written and conversations flowed naturally. The story wasn’t intricate but it was profound. It is this profoundness that made the narrative work.
I can’t help but gush about this book. It seems that I prefer every book relating homosexuality and identity. There is something in them that naturally appeals to me. Perhaps because it is a deviation from the norms. Moreover, they never fail to astound. Yanagihara’s A Little Life showed a more mature take on this subject while Sáenz’ Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was on the sweeter end. Nevertheless, both were great reads. For a young adult fiction, Sáenz’ work is a diamond. Its take on a plethora of subjects such as identity, friendship and love is simply astounding. It reminded us the beauty of summer love. It was a fabulous work and something that I recommend. All those accolades it received it totally deserved.
Recommended for readers of young adult fiction, for the liberal and open-minded readers, readers who want to experience a different type of romance, readers who like non-stereotypical loves stories, and for readers who want a light and pleasurable read.
Not recommended for homophobic readers and readers who have allergy on young adult fiction in general.
About the Writer
(Photo by Wikipedia) Benjamin Alire Sáenz was born on August 16, 1954 in Dona Ana County, New Mexico.
Before becoming a writer, Alire Sáenz studied theology at the University of Louvain in Leuven, Belgium (1977-1981). He served as a priest in El Paso, Texas for a couple of years. In 1985, he started studying English and creative writing at the University of Texas at El Paso. It was also at the same university that he earned his MA degree in creative writing. Calendar of Dust (1991), his first book of poems, won the American Book Award in 1992.
Carry Me Like Water, published in 1995, was his first novel. It was shortly followed by The House of Forgetting in 1997. His first young adult novel, Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, was published in 2004. In 2012, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was published and became his best work. It has earned Alire Sáenz a bevy of literary awards, including the Lambda Award. In 2013, he became the first Latino writer to win the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club.
Alire Sáenz is openly gay, having come out in late 2000s. He is currently teaching creative writing at the University of Texas at El Paso.
I wondered what that was like, to hold someone’s hand. I bet you could sometimes find all the mysteries of the universe in someone’s hand. ~