Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s 2012 novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe has quickly woven itself within the tapestry of beloved young adult literature. Aristotle and Dante tells the story of the two eponymous Mexican American boys who develop a friendship during the summer of 1987 that goes on to change the course of their adolescence. Aristotle (Ari), who narrates the book through first person perspective, is a conflicted character who struggles with being much younger than his older siblings, effectively rendering him an only child. The crux of this struggle is his and his parents’ estranged relationship with his brother, Bernardo, who has been in prison since Ari was four under circumstances that remain withheld from Ari throughout most of the narrative. Ari deeply yearns for a relationship with his older brother, especially since he has trouble connecting with his own peers in El Paso, Texas.
In steps Dante, who, like Ari, positions himself as a social outcast. Their friendship blossoms effortlessly during a summer that is cut short due to an accident that leaves Ari confined to his house. After Dante confesses romantic feelings for Ari, their relationship is thrown for a curveball that is further complicated by Dante’s family move to Chicago for the school year. As Ari and Dante both grow into young men during their year apart, Ari finds their identities begin to diverge; he is concerned with following what he understands as a normal adolescence, which includes focusing on his masculinity and presumed attraction to girls, while Dante struggles with his Mexican American identity – he feels as if he is somehow less Mexican because of his lighter skin and carries some internalized discrimination due to this – and his burgeoning queer sexuality. When Dante returns to El Paso the following summer, the two boys are thrust back into a friendship that is simultaneously familiar and foreign, and Ari is forced to make a decision about what their relationship will look like moving forward.
This book is written in beautiful prose that is oftentimes quite poetic, making it an outstanding read for its aesthetic qualities. Sáenz’s style and artful use of language gives the work an occasional level of abstraction that makes it a complex and satisfying text for adolescents. His use of symbolism within the novel is frequent and intentional, illuminating elements of Ari’s identity and his relationship with Dante that he is not always aware of, serving to draw the reader closer into the text. The relationships in the text add to its complexity and suitability for adolescent readers and high school classrooms. The shifting relationship between Ari and Dante is particularly notable as they navigate the boundaries of friendship and romantic love, but equally interesting is Ari’s evolving relationship with his overbearing yet loving mother and reserved, war-traumatized father. There is great potential for adolescents to see their relationships with their own parents reflected in Ari’s relationship with his mom and dad, particularly as the relationship is not static but constantly shifting throughout the novel as Ari gets older and gains more agency apart from his parents. The purpose of the text adds yet another dimension of complexity as the text is less plot-driven than most young adult novels and more focused on the consciousness and development of Ari over a specific period of time. Sáenz is less concerned with the events that take place and more interested in Ari’s reaction and internalization of those events, formatting the text more toward abstraction than is typically done in young adult literature.
By: Josh Quinones
Sáenz, Benjamin Alire. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Simon & Schuster, 2012.