By Erika Emch
As much as we all like to say that we don’t judge a book by its cover (metaphorically or literally), we do. Meaning, when a book has an amazing cover, it’s expected to be an amazing book. This proved extremely true for Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s novel, “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.”
Set in the summer of 1987, fifteen-year-old Aristotle (not the philosopher) Mendoza finds himself sitting on the edge of the community pool even though he is unable to swim. He meets Dante Quintana, his complete polar opposite. Aristotle, also known as Ari, is a very closed off, arrogant, and confident young man. However, he has a hard time figuring out where he fits into the world. He even says that he has a problem with his life because it was someone else’s idea. Dante, on the other hand, is a very outgoing, charismatic, and ambitious teen. Knowing the complete path for his life, these boys differ greatly. Both growing up with Mexican descent, they can relate to each other. Thus, these two boys quickly become the best of friends.
Throughout the novel they find themselves spending days on end together and never seem to get bored with each other. Through this large amount of time being spent together, they realize that their friendship is growing and will likely last forever. They discover some of the secrets of the universe, but more importantly they discover more about themselves. This book touches on ideas of friendship, family relationships, sexuality, and the validity of their heritage based on stereotypes.
One of the things that I really enjoyed about this novel was the importance of family. In far too many young adult novels, the parents barely play a role in the plot, which is obviously not realistic since most teenagers under the age of eighteen live with their parents. Both Ari and Dante’s parents played a key role in the novel, and their own problems were incorporated into the storyline. The most prominent of the parents is Aristotle’s father, who has survived a term in Vietnam and is plagued by the horrors of war. His inability to speak about the war and Ari’s constant curiosity about Vietnam also drives the plot.
Aristotle also has plenty of curiosity about his brother who has been in a federal prison for the past ten years. Since he was much older than him, Ari didn’t hold many memories of what may have happened. Constant snooping around the house and pestering of his parents to give him a bit of information about his brother kept me on the edge of my seat. His crime even got to the point where they would not say his name or have pictures of him lying around the house. It was almost as if he never existed since they were so ashamed of his past.
Another thing I loved about this book was that it is a very well-written coming of age novel. Many teenage readers will shudder at the words “coming of age novel.” Seldom are they interesting enough to finish, let alone be well written at the same time. However, “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” is a perfect example of what a “coming of age” novel should be. The characters are so dynamic and seem like real people. There are awkward conversations about puberty as well as their plans for life. They hold conversations that pubescent teenage boys would talk about, but never admit.
There was an issue of validity of race in this novel. Aristotle and Dante are both one hundred percent Mexican, but their physical differences are a common topic in this novel. Aristotle lets his Mexican heritage define him. He feels that he needs to be tough, muscular, and poor to truly be Mexican. He goes out of his way to follow a stereotype to feel like he is fitting in. Dante, however, is the complete opposite (as usual). He doesn’t consider himself Mexican at all. Physically, his skin tone is much lighter than Ari’s. He prefers to read poetry and go stargazing instead of getting involved in drugs and fighting to prove his dominance. The discussion of cultural identity is something that is seldom discussed in YA novels. To have two contrasting characters of the same ethnicity evaluating it based on stereotypes was very interesting to me.
However, a few things slowed down the book for me. The novel covers two summers and the school year in-between. During the school year, Ari finds himself unwillingly separated from Dante and hangs out with his old friends that he had before he met Dante. These characters that are mentioned only in the middle of the novel are essentially pointless. It’s important to see how Ari behaves when separated from Dante, but these characters were not needed. There was still enough conversation with Dante and the mystery of Ari’s father and brother to help drive the plot.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I just happened to pass a book on the bookshelf with a cool cover, and I hadn’t heard anything about this book prior to opening it up. I’m so glad that I did. This book will make your heart melt and give you a different outlook on life.