Thursday, February 6, 2014

Why You Should Read: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
February 21, 2012
Hardcover, 359 pages
Source: library loan

"I bet you could sometimes find all the mysteries of the universe in someone's hand."

Have you ever read a book that left you completely satisfied? A book so skillfully and thoughtfully written, your heart bursts with warmth and joy just thinking about the experience – long after your completion of the book? And then your heart breaks just a little, because you’ve discovered a gem, and whatever you plan to read next will not and cannot compare to this feeling. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a perfect novel from start to finish. From this assessment alone, I know I cannot provide you with a formal review. So, instead, I’ve decided to tell you why Aristotle and Dante is so special; you’ll want to make it your next read.

Aristotle and Dante is a quiet, delicate, and beautiful portrayal of life. It is also blatantly honest about the hardships of growing up and the challenges adulthood presents. Sáenz points to family and friends as the most important support system there is. Though the story isn’t built this way from the start, and it takes time to arrive at this notion, the pacing is careful and steady, making every powerful moment much more prominent and heartfelt.

To put it simply, this is a coming of age story about two boys who are trying to find their place in the world. Digging even deeper, this is a story about the influence of family and friendship, and its role on the emotional and social development of a child. Still, this story is more than just two teenage boys figuring themselves out. The parents in this story are learning and growing, just as much as their sons are.

Aristotle, the main protagonist in this story hides questions in his heart. As Sáenz puts it, he is at "war with himself" – but so are his parents. Ari’s father, a Vietnam veteran keeps a war hidden in the depths of his soul  while Ari’s mother, who has disowned her first born son, keeps her reasons for this harsh punishment locked up. Growing up with a distant and silent father and a mother who denies Ari a truth so important, has affected the way Ari expresses himself. Ari, too, is quiet and in pain. Ari is lonely, angry, and unable to make lasting connections with kids his own age, but when Dante comes into the picture, Ari’s life changes drastically. Ari’s friendship with Dante slowly changes him for the better. He becomes more open to questions about life and love. But he keeps these questions mostly to himself, because without the truth about his family, Ari can't begin to find the answers he seeks. Without the truth about his family, Ari can't be made whole. 

Through Ari’s narration, you'll go through a wave of emotions. You'll feel everything Ari feels. You'll go from feeling loneliness to sadness to anger to elation. Though this is Dante’s story too, and you'll feel just as strongly about his journey too. 

Opposite of Ari, Dante is open to expression, he is unrestrained about sharing his feelings. Just like Ari, Dante is Mexican-American. Though the two walk between two worlds, Dante has issues embracing his Mexican heritage. Dante speaks Spanish with an accent; his complexion is lighter than most Mexicans living in his town; he feels like an outsider within his own culture. Dante’s issues with his sexuality also places a strain in his heart. How can he confront his parents and explain to them he’s attracted to boys? How could they possibly accept him after a truth so outside of the "norm?" And what about his friendship with Ari? How does Dante's sexuality affect his relationship with his best friend? Can they continue their friendship after this revelation?

As you can see, this story covers so much ground, it’s difficult to walk away from it unaffected. It is moving and relevant. I cried tears of anger and tears of joy. I cried passionately and unashamedly – with hiccups and all, and this is the only book that has succeeded in doing both. Sáenz’s simplistic but poetic prose will make it easy for you to fall into this story, but his grasp of people, their afflictions, and how they work to become better will resonate with you. After all, this is an authentic and earnest representation of life. It speaks softly and profoundly. It's a modern day classic and one everyone should read.

Find author Benjamin Alire Sáenz here: website / goodreads / twitter

Read more reviews of Ari & Dante here: 
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  1. Wow. I'd heard good things about this book before, but your review has me completely sold. I love books that make me cry unashamedly and have me struggling to find the words in my review that will do it justice. I'm so glad this was that type of book for you Marlene, and thank you for your beautiful review!

  2. Thanks for a wonderful review! I've got this book on my kindle waiting to be read :)

  3. Whoa! I wasn't really interested in this before (although I LOVE that cover), but you have me sold. I don't cry in books, but I love ones that bring out the emotion and threaten the tears! You did such a good job reviewing this, I don't think I'd be able to. It just sounds great overall and I already have flutterings in my heart, you know, the ones that come from books, ha! Lovely review as always, Marlene :)

  4. Marlene, this is such a beautiful review! You completely captured the quiet, but heartfelt, essence of this novel. I'm so glad that it held such a strong emotional impact for you. It definitely spoke to me in ways most books fail to do and the in-depth delving into Aristotle's thoughts was incredible. It felt like this author managed to say so much with such little words; especially thoughts that were in my head too. Moreover, though this book is extremely cultural, I love that so many of its sentiments can be applied universally to all immigrants. Absolutely stunning review, dear! :)

  5. Wow, what a thoughtful review, Marlene. I've considered this book several times, just for that gorgeous cover, but you've conveyed the story beautifully in your review, and I might have to pick this book up sooner rather than later. But I think I'll wait until I'm in the mood for all the feels because it sounds like this book evokes just that. Gorgeous review, Marlene!

  6. This sounds amazing! There's no better feeling than reading a book that is so good that it's all you can think about for days after.

  7. Your first paragraph sums up my own experience with this book perfectly. I didn't have many expectations going in, but ended up falling in love with that quiet, affecting tone almost immediately, and it's still a book that I can barely find the words to talk about! I completely agree that the story is wonderfully authentic. I also loved how much emotion could be felt in Sáenz’s simple but beautiful prose, and I definitely can't wait to try more from him now. I'm so glad you were as blown away by this as I was, Marlene. It's such a special book. Lovely post! :)

  8. This is such a beautiful review, Marlene! Everything about this book sounds great, but I must admit I'm most interested in the cultural/Latino aspects. I don't read nearly enough books featuring Latino characters. Although I admit I'm a bit hesitant to read something so good, so emotionally satisfying, that it'll take a toll on my next few reads. Because I'm selfish like that haha. I have heard wonderful things about this book, and your review simply validates the fact that I do need to read this, and soon.

  9. Your love for this book shines through in your words, Marlene! What a gorgeous review. I can feel the struggles of these two boys to come to terms with themselves, each other and their place in the world, I also really like that it's set in a rich culture, and that cover is beautiful. After seeing yours and Keertana's reviews, I really need to read this one!

  10. Such a beautiful review, Marlene. I keep meaning to read this book because I've heard so many good things about it, but I just haven't found the time yet! It sounds like a gorgeous book.

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

  11. What a beautiful review, Marlene!! I've heard nothing but great things about this book and your review has definitely made me want to read it even more. I must make time to read it. :)


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