Charting Our Destiny
“I wondered if Dante and I would ever be allowed to write our names on the map of the world. Other people are given writing instruments – and when they go to school, they are taught to use them. But they don’t give boys like me and Dante pencils or pens or spray paint. They want us to read, but they do not want us to write. What will we write our names with? And where on the map would we write them?”~ Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World
Back in 2012, American poet, novelist, and writer of children’s books Benjamin Alire Sáenz took the literary world by storm with his young adult novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of Universe. The developing love story between teenagers Aristotle and Dante thawed icy hearts the world over. Love is a strange territory but Sáenz reminded his readers of the warmth that love envelopes us in. Through his protagonists, Sáenz reminded us how it is to fall in love and be in love at a young age. It was a poignant story, to say the least. Not only was the novel a commercial success but it was also a critical one, earning the nods of literary pundits and constantly ranking as one of the best young adult fiction novels of all time. It has garnered positive reviews and won a slew of awards such as the 2013 Michael L. Printz Award honor for Young Adult fiction and the 2013 Lambda Literary Award winner for LGBT Children’s/Young Adult. It was a sensation that catapulted Sáenz to global fame.
And everyone thought that their story was over once one flipped the last page. One thing, however, was palpable: everyone wanted to know what happened after Ari and Dante finally came into terms with what they felt towards each other. The lingering hangover from the book led to a subtle but constantly growing clamor for a sequel to the award-winning book. Years have passed but in 2021, the gods of literature heard everyone’s clamor and finally granted their wish. Almost a decade after introducing Aristotle and Dante to a global audience, Sáenz published the long-awaited sequel to his sensational young adult novel: Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World.
Despite the lapse of time, Sáenz was able to pick up where he left off. It was as if time stood still. The sequel to Aristotle and Dante’s love story commenced on the summer vacation before their senior year. Both are still suffering from feverish love after they have finally come to terms with what they feel for each other. Like two pieces destined for each other, they fell even more in love with the passing of a new day. Each day was an opportunity to unravel even more secrets of the universe, but now as a couple. They doted on each other, still warm from their newfound feelings for each other. However, there was something at the back of their minds that was bothering them. As they fall deeper into love, they started growing uncertain of how to navigate this strange new world that they have recently discovered. Yes, they have slowly discovered the “secrets of the universe” in each other’s company but the world beyond them can be ominous.
“He was like a heart that was beating in every pore of my body. His heart was beating in my heart. His heart was beating in my head. His heart was beating in my stomach. His heart was beating in my legs. His heart was beating in my arms, my hands, my fingers. His heart was beating in my tongue, my lips. No wonder I was trembling. Trembling, trembling, trembling.”~ Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World
The first book was a poignant reminder of the process of falling in love. The story of Ari and Dante captivated the readers the world over. The second book, on the other hand, doused the reader with a hard dose of reality. Aristotle, the main narrator, was filled with anxiety as to how their relationship will be viewed by society. The novel, after all, was set in late 1980s El Paso, Texas. Not going into the main characters’ favor is their provenance; they are the sons of migrants. The world was still coming to grips with homosexuality and homosexual relationships. It was wrapped around in stigma. Ari and Dante were cognizant of this, and this recognition of the realities surrounding them was a cross they must bear. They must keep their love for each other a secret until the world, or at least the majority of it starts embracing special relationships such as theirs.
Further complicating to their budding relationship were the events that were transpiring across the world. Ari and Dante’s story was juxtaposed to events seminal in the move for recognition of LGBTQ rights and relationships. The most prevalent was the AIDS pandemic that has swept homosexual men. They were frowned upon by the general public, ostracized for the choices they have made. This was demonstrated through the story of Diego, the son of one of Ari’s mother’s friends, Lina Ortega. Diego left El Paso to live in San Francisco where he eventually passed away due to complications of AIDS. In light of his death, Mrs. Alvidrez, a devout member of the Catholic Daughters, tried to convince her fellow members to boycott the Catholic ceremonies for his burial: “I’m saying that Diego, who apparently chose a lifestyle contrary to everything our faith stands for, has died of AIDS. And I understand that the obituary will say he died of cancer. I do not approve of that lie. And I do not believe that he should have a funeral in the Catholic church.”
Mrs. Alvidrez’s discourse with Ari’s mother underscored several plights that hovered above the world of Ari and Dante. AIDS was indeed a looming concern but another realistic concern was the condemnation from institutions that are meant to protect and support those who are afflicted with it. The stigma was overwhelming that those who are afflicted with AIDS choose to suffer in silence. On the other hand, this confrontation demonstrated that while Mrs. Alvidrez abounded, there is still hope in humanity. With compassion prevailing over what was deemed right, Mrs. Mendoza refused to heed Mrs. Alvidrez’s call. Instead, Mrs. Mendoza chose to comfort her grieving friend.
Mrs. Mendoza standing up for her friend was courageous in a time when individuals fear demonstrating such support in public spaces. It was also this kind of support that Ari and Dante needed. Both set of parents accepted and viewed positively their relationship. They fully embraced their sons for who they are, nothing more and nothing less. Their wisdom, guidance, and support were important backbones of their children’s relationship. Sáenz demonstrated the importance of support groups in a world brimming with uncertainties and unkindness. The support from their families was important but Sáenz also underscored the importance of seeking support from peers of the same age. Ari and Dante found support in their friends, who like their parents, accepted their relationship for what it is. Support also came in the form of Mr. Blocker, one of Ari’s high school teachers.
“And I thought about how life was like the weather, it could change, and how Dante had moods that were pure as a blue sky and sometimes they were dark like a storm and that maybe, in some ways, he was just like me, and maybe that wasn’t such a good thing – but maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing either. People were complicated. I was complicated. Dante, he was complicated, too. People – they were included in the mysteries of the universe. What mattered is that he was an original. That he was beautiful and human and real and I loved him – and I didn’t think anything would ever change that.”~ Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World
The story Ari and Dante showed that love is a strong force on its own. It made them discover more about themselves. It also made them learn more about the people around them. Ari, for instance, started learning more about his father. His once reclusive father started opening up parts of himself to his son. Them opening up to each other was one of the novel’s more heartwarming moments. In finding himself, Ari managed to bridge the years with his battle-scarred father. Ari, who was once brimming with angst, started learning more about the people around him. His anger kept him pushing people away but perhaps influenced by Dante, he started making inroads. On his own, he decided to confront his past trauma. While it did not end as well as he expected it to be, it nevertheless led to finding peace within himself. Ari’s growth and development as a character were some of the story’s finer points.
Redemption and reconciliation were not limited between Ari and his father. The story abounded with stories of forgiveness and establishing better connections with people around us. Ari and Cassandra’s reconciliation, for instance, was pivotal in Ari confronting his past. They used to hate each other with a passion but a thread made them see that they had more in common than they had expected. This reconciliation opened more roads for Ari. It reminded us that we should live among people. The process can be long and painstaking but what we need is to take the first steps. It doesn’t matter if these steps are baby steps as even small steps will lead us to our destination.
Beyond character development, there were elements of campus story to the novel that rendered it a different texture. This further magnified the social aspects of Ari’s story as it provided a different landscape upon which to observe his behavior. As a campus story, the novel grappled with some timely and seminal subjects such as the discrimination and racism that remains prevalent in campuses. For instance, one of the teachers in Ari’s school was obnoxiously racist and was unabashed by the commotion that her words provoke among her students. She refused to accept the label of being a racist but her repeated assertion of her white privilege only underlined what her students recognized in her. Grief was also subtly tackled in the novel.
Accenting the novel were letters and journal entries written by Ari and were addressed to Dante. It encapsulated some of his fears and desires; it was a gateway to his inner thoughts. His fears and his desires gave him a more realistic and relatable angle. On the other hand, this underscored what was lacking in the story: Dante’s voice. For a novel that marketed itself to be the story of two boys in love, it was glaringly bereft of the other boy’s voice. Ari stirred the story from the onset. It would have been fine had there been more presence from Dante. Dante, for the most part, came off as an afterthought, almost a figment of Ari’s imagination. This gap opens a lot of questions. How does Dante view their plights as a couple in a discriminating world? Is he as candid as Ari made him out to be? Like Ari, there was some bottled-up anger in Dante as well but the source of this angst was never addressed. The readers only see Dante through the lenses of Ari and in this novel, his presence was sparse.
“There’s a voice in the universe that holds the truth of all those who walk the earth. I believe that we are born for reasons we do not understand – and it is up to us to discover those reasons. That is your only task. If you are brave enough to sit and listen to the voice of the universe in the silence that lives within you, then you will always know what matters – and you will know too that you matter more to the universe than you will ever know.”~ Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World
The story also took time to develop. The first one hundred pages was a slow burner that situated the readers inside Ari’s mind and his desire. It was as if this was Sáenz’s portrayal of the romantic angles of the story before shifting towards other directions. Indeed, there was a shift in the storytelling once Ari and Dante crossed the bridge. The storytelling was a little uneven and some of the conversations were stilted. The novel was still accessible and a delightful read but there were moments where the inconsistencies in Ari’s character floated to the surface. The novel’s heartwarming moments made up for its blemishes
While the novel was not flawless, Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World was still a solid sequel to a beloved work of young adult fiction. It was, for the most part, Ari’s coming-of-age story. The elements of romance were watered down, deliberately it seems, by Sáenz in order to address several personal and societal concerns that are seminal to the growth and development of the main characters. What Ari and Dante have discovered is a strange new world that was brimming with uncertainties and fraught with challenges. However, with the love and support of the people around them, Ari and Dante were able to hurdle some of these challenges. Some for now because, as they navigate this world together, there will be even more obstacles that will come their way. As long as they have each other, and the support of those who love them, there is no river too wide or mountain too high that they cannot cross or cannot climb.
Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 20%
Writing (25%) – 21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 11%
I can still recall how I once chanced upon Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe back in 2015. The author didn’t ring any bell of familiarity but the book title and its vivid cover immediately caught my attention. I am glad I picked up the book for I loved the story of Ari and Dante, despite my aversion to young adult fiction. I did, however, feel that their story was too short. The gods of literature finally granted this wish in 2021 when Sáenz released its sequel, Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World. I didn’t even know about his latest release had “anticipated releases for the second half of 2021” not been a Top Five Tuesday topic. Upon learning about the sequel, I added it to my reading list without more ado, even preordering a copy of the book. I planned to read it last year but I had too many books lined up. Nevertheless, I lined it up for my 2022 opening salvo. Compared to its successor, Dive Into the Waters of the World grappled with more seminal themes, such as acceptance, sexuality, and desires. What I wanted, however, was more of Dante; Aristotle’s resonated all throughout the story. It was still a good read and it does seem that Sáenz has positioned himself for another sequel. I am crossing my finger for that.
Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 516
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
In Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, two boys in a border town fell in love.
Now they must discover what it means to stay in love and build a relationship in a world that seems to challenge their very existence.
Ari has spent all of high school burying who he really is, staying silent and invisible. He expected his senior high to be the same. But something in him cracked open when he fell in love with Dante, and he can’t go back. Suddenly he finds himself reaching out to new friends, standing up to bullies of all kinds, and making his voice heard. And, always, there is Dante – dreamy, witty Dante – who can get on Ari’s nerves and fill him with desire all at once.
The boys are determined to forge a path for themselves in a world that doesn’t understand them. But when Ari is faced with a shocking loss, he’ll have to fight like never before to create a life that is truthfully, joyfully his own.
About the Author
To know more about Benjamin Alire Sáenz, click here.