I wanted to tell them that I’d never had a friend, not ever, not a real one. Until Dante. I wanted to tell them that I never knew that people like Dante existed in the world, people who looked at the stars, and knew the mysteries of water, and knew enough to know that birds belonged to the heavens and weren’t meant to be shot down from their graceful flights by mean and stupid boys. I wanted to tell them that he had changed my life and that I would never be the same, not ever.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz has been on my radar since it first came out–not only because it has won so many awards and is lauded by many, but also because my summer book club picked it a few years ago. I didn’t read it then because I had required reading fatigue (it’s a thing I tend to get every summer), but I knew I would get back to it eventually. Well, eventually came this year once I found out Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame) did the narration for the audiobook.
The plot of the book is pretty straight-forward: Aristotle (who goes by Ari) is a lonely 15-year-old who befriends Dante one day at the swimming pool. Then, you know, life and stuff happens. Big life and big stuff. I am avoiding spoilers here, obviously.
What I Liked
– First and foremost, this is a friendship novel. I LOVE FRIENDSHIP STORIES. They make me happy. Friendships can be easy and challenging and hard and beautiful, and that’s exactly what happens here.
– Dante is pretty fantastic. He’s such a great character: open, honest, frustrating, angry, challenging. He’s just so earnest! Ah, it’s adorable.
– Ari is pretty great, too. He’s the narrator, so the reader is more privy to his thoughts, and he is struggling to find his place in the world. I liked that he is pretty much just doing what comes next like a checklist for life, even if he isn’t sure what he wants yet. I think that’s pretty accurate for how many teens do things.
– This is a kissing book. Lots of talk of kissing here. Lots of kissing happening, too. I approve.
– THE PARENTS. Both boys’ parents are excellent. They are supremely flawed human beings who are doing the best they can, which means they screw up sometimes but that they love their kids so, so much–and the narrative acknowledges it. Also, Dante’s father is an English professor, so that automatically raises his level of awesome for me.
– Gina Navarro and Sophie (I can’t remember her last name). These are girls Ari grew up with who drive him insane but also love him a super lot and force him to participate in life stuff. At first, I was jarred by their presence, but I really like how they challenged him and how he came to see their place in his life.
– So basically all of the characters were great is what I’m saying.
– THE ENDING. I 100% love the ending to this book, and that’s what took me from liking it to really liking it. And when I say the ending, I don’t mean the last chapter. I mean pretty much the whole last act, starting from the moment Ari’s parents sit him down for a heart-to-heart until the very, very end. It was pretty much perfection.
– The dialogue is super realistic and I loved, loved, loved any time the characters were talking to and interacting with each other. I could pretty much see every single one of those scenes playing out in front of me. They were so great.
– One of the running threads through the book is this idea of being a “real” Mexican. I loved that exploration of the boys’ identities and how the idea is tied into not only cultural expectations but also outside stereotypes. It’s really well handled and Saenz is subtle in how he completely and most emphatically states that the only thing that makes someone a real Mexican is being Mexican. Love.
– Lin-Manuel Miranda is A+ as a narrator. I would listen to another book he reads. Also, he can definitely roll his r’s. I tried over and over to say Bernardo the way he does, and it just wasn’t happening. I also don’t speak Spanish, so you know.
What I Didn’t Like
– I thought this was a summer book. It’s not. When Ari went back to school, I was so confused and a little upset. This is all about my expectations as a reader, but it is what it is.
– I am pretty sure Ari is depressed throughout most of the novel (thought it’s never explicitly stated), and that’s fine. He’s also a pretty interior character, which is also fine. However, what that meant for huge chunks of the novel is that Ari is completely in his head and most of what he thinks is expressed in negatives. There is a lot of “I don’t know why I did this” and “I don’t know why this” and “I didn’t say anything, but” or “I didn’t ask him this.” Those moments (and there are A LOT of them) made the narration and the story drag.
Also, one thing I was taught when I studied creative writing was not to describe what a character doesn’t do and so I am hyper aware of when an author does it.
Those moments may have played out better in the text than in the audio, but just imagine listening to someone tell you for five minutes straight all the things they didn’t do in a given situation. It would get real old real fast.
On the plus side, it did make the moments of dialogue and character interaction that much more enjoyable, so.
In conclusion: A really powerful look at friendship, family, and love with great characters and an excellent ending.