Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Benjamin Alire Saenz’s new YA book Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe has one of my favorite titles, and I picked it up for that reason alone. The book is about two Mexican-American teenagers named Aristotle and Dante, although Aristotle tries to go by Ari (he notes, “I renamed myself Ari. If I switched the letter, my name was Air. I thought it might be a great thing to be air. I could be something and nothing at the same time. I could be necessary and also invisible. Everyone would need me and no one would be able to see me”) and Dante sometimes chooses Dan. They meet at the beginning of the summer Ari is fifteen, in 1987, when, for a lack of anything better to do, he goes to the local swimming pool. Dante is there, and he gets Ari’s attention with his nasally, allergy-ridden voice, and his offer to teach Ari how to swim. The two quickly become friends, something that Ari in particular is missing from his life. When he thinks about how he is typically alone (although not lonely), Ari says, “I got along okay. I had school friends. Sort of. I wasn’t wildly popular. How could I be? In order to be wildly popular you had to make people believe that you were fun and interesting. I just wasn’t that much of a con artist.”

The book is mainly driven by conversations, and several pages will go by in an almost screenplay-like format, with dialogue following dialogue following dialogue. For a YA novel, I found this really engaging, immediate, and fast moving. As a reader, I became wrapped up in the friendship between Ari and Dante, since the elaborate and drawn-out conversations meant that their relationship was happening right in front of me, almost in real time. For example, when they talk about their parents, the entirety of their conversation is laid out, almost nothing communicated by description:

Dante shook his head. “We’re too nice, you know that?”
“What do you mean?”
“Our parents turned us into nice boys. I hate that.”
“I don’t think I’m so nice.”
“Are you in a gang?”
“Do you do drugs?”
“Do you drink?”
“I’d like to.”
“Me too. But that wasn’t the question.”
“No, I don’t drink.”
“Do you have sex?”
“Sex, Ari.”
“No, never had sex, Dante. But I’d like to.”
“Me too. See what I mean? We’re nice.”
“Nice,” I said. “Shit.”
“Shit,” he said.
And then we busted out laughing.

Ari and Dante’s parents are actually a great addition to this book. Although they are not in the picture too much (Ari and Dante are really at the center of the story), when they are, they are sympathetic, caring, and understanding of their sons. Ari’s father is back after serving in Vietnam, and his much older brother Bernardo is in jail (and has been for several years). Dante’s father is an English professor, and his mother is writing a book about teens and addiction. Parents can never really be at the heart of a young adult story, but here, they fit in at the periphery in just the right way.

There are several parts to this book: one that examines the summer Ari and Dante meet, one that details the accident that changes their friendship (reminiscent of what happens in A Separate Peace by John Knowles), Dante’s move with his parents to Chicago, and his return a year later. But it is always their friendship and relationship that makes the story work. Although Ari and Dante are exceptional characters on their own, Saenz’s writing is at its best when the two are together, and luckily, it is that way for most of the novel. 

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