Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz- Review

Posted June 9, 2014 by Cristina (Girl in the Pages) in Books, Reviews / 9 Comments

aristotleAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

My rating: 3.5/5 Stars

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (February 2012)

Length: 359 pgs

Format: Paperback, purchased from Amazon

Goodreads Synopsis: Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

My Review:

“The problem with my life is that it was someone else’s idea.”

The opening quote of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe immediately grabbed me, and set the tone for most of the novel: profound in simple ways. Aristotle serves as the narrator of this coming-of-age novel, and his observations are so honest and at times earnest, and carry the profound weight of understanding a simple truth or fact about one’s life.

I really liked Aristotle (or Ari, as he likes to be called) as a narrator, although there were times when I couldn’t identify with him, having never been a fifteen year old boy myself. Yet his narration combines an intricate undercurrent of the subjects of race, class, and sexuality that run throughout the novel to craft his experience as a lower-middle class Mexican-American in Texas, struggling with problems unique to his demographic as well as struggles universal to all teenagers, such as puberty, popularity, and just plain finding out who he is.

Dante wasn’t my favorite character, although his story (as told by Ari) was important and relevant as much now as it was in the time of the book’s setting (1987). What I liked about this book, though, is that it didn’t solely focus on Ari and Dante in a vacuum, rather deeper layers of each of their families were explored. This book did not have the “absent YA parents,” rather their parents were integral part of each boy’s experience with growing up and with how their outlook on life and of themselves is shaped. I loved the family secrets and layers that impacted the younger generations, and the exploration of the relationships between parents and children, and how some children struggle to tell their parents about themselves, but also how parents find it hard to display themselves as real people to their children.

It’s hard to give a coherent “I liked this and this and this but didn’t like this” review of this novel, because there wasn’t a defined action-driven plot, rather it covered the passage of time and various events as Ari develops emotionally. This novel was lyrical in its simple prose and Ari’s observations (perhaps those were his true discoveries of “the secrets of the universe”) resonated with me after putting my book back on the shelf. However, I feel as though this book fell victim to the hype-monster for me. I went into it with really high expectations based on what I had been seeing around the blogging world, and while I enjoyed it, it wasn’t a five star read for me. It seemed like a lighter version of other multicultural American literature that I read while in college, and the narrative reminded me of Junot Díaz’s work, albeit much less vulgar and more appropriate for its target audience.

What I Liked:

  • Ari was a fantastic narrator.
  • Great quotes.
  • The relationships between parents and children, and how adults and children grow and learn from each other.
  • How each boy related to his ethnicity and either embraced or rejected it based on his personal experiences, despite both being Mexican-American (fascinating!)

What I Didn’t:

  • The book dragged in some spots since there wasn’t always a clear plot to follow.
  • I would’ve liked to learn more about some of the peripheral characters based on how they impacted Ari and Dante.
  • This book was over-hyped for me, so going into it I think my expectations were a little over inflated.

Overall: I’m really glad I read this book and that I was able to experience Ari’s honest and simply profound narration, as well as to join him and Dante on their coming of age journey. However, there are other books I’ve read that focus on the multicultural experience of growing up in the US that I prefer, although none of those are within the YA genre. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe therefore adds a unique perspective in the YA world and covers a lot of important topics by both major and marginalized identities, and I hope to read more books like this in the YA genre in the future.

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9 responses to “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz- Review

  1. This is a really great review! I’m still looking forward to reading this one. I haven’t actually read many reviews of this. In fact, yours might be the only one, so I don’t think I have any expectations really. I’ve read the summary, of course, and I think it sounds amazing.

    • It was very good! It was just a tad overhyped for me. Plus I’m very sparing with my five star reviews haha. But I really think it’s super unique for YA and I bet you’ll like it!

  2. I love that opening line, as you’ve said it drags you in and makes you want to read the rest of the book. I follow a blogger who is always praising this as one of his favourites so I hope I will be able to read it someday. I think I’ve seen that it’s received quite a few rewards? It’s always a shame when hype ruins a book, it’s happened more times than I would like!

    Couldn’t help but notice you’re reading TFiOS, looking forward to seeing what you think. 🙂

    • Yes, I believe it has won/been nominated for at least four major awards! And I can definitely see why, it covers a LOT of important topics (race, class, gender, sexuality, etc) in an accessible way for teenage readers. I think this would be a great book to add into high school curriculum.

      Have you read TFiOS yet?

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