Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Some books don’t work for me even as they leave me stunned, impressed, or moved. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is one such book. Benjamin Alire Sáenz makes me cry at points with his writing, which is definitely beautiful. Yet neither the story itself nor the characters end up doing much for me.
Aristotle (Ari, he calls himself) is a Mexican–American teenager growing up in the 1980s. One summer he meets Dante, also of Mexican descent but with parents who are college professors. The two strike up an unlikely friendship that verges into shades of the romantic. Dante in particular seems quite smitten with Ari and willing to explore the romantic side of their friendship, but Ari is reluctant. Things are complicated by the way Ari bottles up his emotions and has difficulty forming authentic connections with other people. Ari thinks he just wants to be left alone. I’m not here to psychoanalyze Ari, though.
I liked the beginning and middle of this book. I liked the development of Ari and Dante’s friendship, the way that they befriend one another, defend one another, and acknowledge each other’s strangeness. Sáenz attempts to portray the zaniness that often accompanies the timeless treasure of a teenager’s summer. After Ari and Dante are separated and Ari returns to school, then gets a job and a vehicle, and begins to think about what it means to grow up, I found myself really invested in his narration. I understand why other people are so captivated by these characters, and in particular by how Ari fixates on some aspects of his personality while diminishing others.
I don’t like the ending. At all.
I don’t like how Ari’s parents sit him down, basically hold and intervention, and parentsplain his feelings to him. This seems like a weird way to end something that should be a romance (is it a romance?). Does anyone’s parents act this way? And it feels infantilizing, like it’s stripping Ari of his agency to make his own choices not just about what he feels but how he expresses his feelings. This might sounds harsh of me, but I think it’s Ari’s prerogative if he wants to be bottle up his emotions and be unhappy. While I understand that his parents might want to intervene to help him, I don’t think you can tell someone what is in their heart. They have to come to these realizations on their own—sometimes with your guidance, sometimes with your questioning, but ultimately from within, not without. So that entire denouement felt rushed, clumsy, and unsatisfying—particularly given the care exhibited in the rest of the book.
This book is endearing because it embraces the messiness of adolescence. Sáenz’s writing style is particularly suited to admitting the complexities of teenage friendship and romance that are sometimes elided in other young adult novels. Ari’s complicated relationships with other friends, or with his parents, are just as real and interesting and important as whatever is happening between him and Dante.
And this is definitely Ari’s story. Sáenz could easily have split the perspective of this narration. He doesn’t, which means we never really get to know Dante beyond what Ari reveals to us through the letters and his recounting of his time with Dante. Part of me wonders how much of the Dante we know is a result of an unreliable narrator. Because Dante never really feels like a fully-realized human character. He isn’t quite a manic pixie dream boy (I don’t think Ari wants one of those?)—and to be fair, Sáenz endows him with desires and issues of his own. Yet Dante remains always somewhat distant from us, even as we continue to go deeper into Ari’s psyche.
I guess I’m in the situation where I can see why people love this book, but it’s like I’m admiring it from the next mountain over instead of joining you on that particular peak. If I’m far enough away, I can dig the atmosphere, the setting, and some of Ari’s journey. As I zoom in, though, there’s more and more that doesn’t work for me. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe didn’t live up to the expectations that others’ joy for it gave me—but that happens sometimes. Paradoxically, I still enjoyed reading it. I like that it moved me to tears a couple of times. I’m just not going to rave about it.