A word of warning right from the start: There will be some spoiler-ish discussion later on in this review — but I’ll put a big spoiler warning on top when we get there!
Dante can swim. Ari can’t. Dante is articulate and self-assured. Ari has a hard time with words and suffers from self-doubt. Dante gets lost in poetry and art. Ari gets lost in thoughts of his older brother who is in prison. Dante is fair skinned. Ari’s features are much darker. It seems that a boy like Dante, with his open and unique perspective on life, would be the last person to break down the walls that Ari has built around himself.
But against all odds, when Ari and Dante meet, they develop a special bond that will teach them the most important truths of their lives, and help define the people they want to be. But there are big hurdles in their way, and only by believing in each other―and the power of their friendship―can Ari and Dante emerge stronger on the other side.
I was completely engaged throughout my listening experience, and thought both Ari and Dante were charming as hell. The story is touching and emotional, with lots of humor as well. At the same time, I realized at the end that the story I thought I was listening to was not in fact the story I was getting. I’ll explain — bear with me!
Ari and Dante are both of Mexican descent, living with their parents in El Paso, Texas. The story is set in the late 80s, which is important to keep in mind in terms of situations within Ari’s family as well as societal norms and prejudices of the time. Both boys are only children — Dante in fact, Ari in terms of circumstance, as his siblings are significantly older and he’s the only one living at home. Both sets of parents are loving and supportive, but in Dante’s case, this is tempered by the walls of silence he experiences around the two forbidden subjects in his home: his father’s wartime experiences in Vietnam, and anything and everything to do with his incarcerated older brother.
Ari loves his parents and they love him, but he finds them unknowable, as their secrets create barriers. Ari is an angry young man with no friends, but something in him connects to Dante from their very first meeting, in the summer when both boys are fifteen. Dante is friendly and outspoken and honest, and he likes to talk about everything. Something about his willingness to accept Ari for who he is forces Ari to see Dante as a friend. They’re soon inseparable, connected and honest and supportive in ways that Ari has never experienced.
Here’s where I’m getting into spoiler territory, so look away if you don’t want to know more!
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Dante’s feelings for Ari go way beyond friendship. As the boys mature over the course of the book, Dante is pretty forthright about where he stands — he’s interested in kissing boys, not girls, and no, it’s not just a phase. Finally, he confesses his feelings to Ari, but Ari isn’t interested in boys — or Dante — in that way.
And that’s where things stand for most of the book, until close to the end, as Ari’s emotions and anger threaten to finally get the best of him. By the end of the book, the walls between Ari and his parents have started to come down, and his parents have started to open up to Ari about their family’s past and all the secrets between them. Finally, his parents confront Ari and tell him that they know that he’s in love with Dante. After tears and a huge emotional release, Ari acknowledges this too.
And I mostly felt… huh? I did not see that coming.
Earlier, I alluded to the fact that I thought I was reading a different book than the book it turned out to be. And here’s what I meant by that: The book is told through Ari’s first-person narration. We get to hear this thoughts on his life and his family, on his frustrations and anger, and on his friendship with Dante. And there’s just nothing that I heard that made me feel that what he felt for Dante went beyond friendship. He talks about Dante’s good looks, but not in a way to make me think there was physical attraction. He talks about the closeness he feels for Dante, but I didn’t have the impression that there was romantic love behind it.
So, I thought I was reading a book about how friendship — real, true, deep, strong friendship — could be possible between a straight boy and a gay boy. And I thought that was really cool. So different, so refreshing. What a great way to break down barriers!
And I have no problem with reading a book about a romance between two teen boys. Coming out stories, first love stories — done well, these can be so sweet and moving, and it’s so important to have these stories available in the YA market. But that’s just not what I thought this book was going to be!
Don’t get me wrong — I loved the book. The writing is marvelous, and I loved the characters. I thought it was so interesting to see how the boys’ Mexican heritage came into play in different ways, and to see how having a loving home isn’t the magical answer to all the problems in a young man’s life. Given the setting in the 80s, it’s also very clearly a different world than the one we live in. Being gay in the time period of the book is something to be hidden, something dangerous, and not an identity to be worn openly and proudly. My heart absolutely broke for Dante when he ended up in the hospital after being on the receiving end of a major beating simply because of being spotted kissing another boy.
End of Spoilers!
Still, I ended the book feeling a little let down. The ending is romantic and hopeful, but it just didn’t match my expectations for where the plot was going. I have to wonder whether part of this is due to listening to the audiobook rather than reading the print book.
The audiobook is amazing, thanks to the insane talents of LIN-MANUEL FREAKIN’ MIRANDA as the narrator. He breathes life into the characters, giving personality to Ari, Dante, and their parents with drama and flair. I did have a hard time in spots keeping track of the dialogue, as there are lengthy exchanges full of quick back-and-forth comments and quips, and despite the different voices given to the characters, I occasionally got lost.
In terms of why I expected the story to go in a different direction (as described in my spoilery section above), I wonder if I’d been reading a printed edition of the book whether I would have absorbed more of the subtext and nuance of the language. The writing is really lovely, and being inside Ari’s head is a roller coaster of thoughts and emotions — but by listening to the audiobook, perhaps I didn’t focus and really spend enough time with the words that build the story. Does that make any sense?
In any case, I really and truly enjoyed this book and recommend it highly… despite feeling both puzzled and a little out of sorts about how it all works out. I’m full of admiration for the author, and will definitely be seeking out more of his books.
Title: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Narrated by: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Publisher: Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: February 1, 2012
Length (print): 359 pages
Length (audio): 7 hours, 29 minutes
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Audible download