Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a novel about family and friendship between two teenage boys who come from different walks of life. Ari is an angsty boy from a family composed of a loving mother, a quiet father, and an absent brother. Dante is a pretty smart aleck raised by a pair of well-educated parents who touch and hug and kiss a lot. The two boys meet at the local swimming pool and the rest, so to speak, is history.
What could I find interesting in a coming-of-age young adult novel? Surely, we’ll see the characters forge their identities in their critical teenage years and the role of the family during this transformation. I’m not terribly excited about these two things. Sure, they have to be addressed considering that this is a young adult novel. But here’s what I looked forward to: there are gay characters, which is not uncommon today but which can still pique the interest of some people. I wanted to see how Mexican and American gay kids from the 80s are depicted in a young adult novel. Is there going to be kissing? Masturbating? Dating? Bullying? Hating?
Yes. These topics were discussed and experienced by the lonesome Ari and the confident Dante. The contrast between the two makes their conversations rather one-sided since Dante does a lot of the talking. But since the novel is told from Ari’s point of view, the reader also gets a lot of introspection from him.
Another thing that interests me is the author. Sáenz writes novels, short stories, and poems for three audiences: children, young adults, and adults. This, for me, is a hallmark of great authorship. This is evident in the way the novel is written. It employs short chapters, succinct dialogues, and simple prose.
I waved bye. He waved bye back.
As I walked home, I thought about birds and the meaning of their existence. Dante had an answer. I didn’t. I didn’t have any idea as to why birds existed. I’d never even asked myself the question.
Dante’s answer made sense to me. If we studied birds, maybe we could learn to be free. I think that’s what he was saying. I had a philosopher’s name. What was my answer? Why didn’t I have an answer?
And why was it that some guys had tears in them and some had no tears at all? Different boys lived by different rules.
I finished reading this inside a noisy café with nosy patrons taking a peek at the book that I’m smiling at. Sure, it’s not Woolf or Faulkner but it’s nevertheless a sweet book. It’s easy to like it and although I feel a little iffy about the neat ending, I just gave in. It’s okay to need someone and it’s a wonderful feeling to be needed. I was still smiling at this thought when I put the book back inside my bag.
[Read in May 2015.]
[4 out of 5 stars.]
[359 pages. Hardcover.]