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

[This is a spoiler-free review]

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It’s been a while since I’ve picked up a book and immediately had to take a pencil out to annotate around a beautiful or meaningful phrase. This was, however, the case with this particular novel. The first thing you need to know about ‘Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe’ (which I’m going to abbreviate to A&DDTSOTU for time’s sake) is that for the first two thirds, it is a deeply sad book. This is less in terms of its events, but rather in terms of the internal struggles that the majority of its characters face. Aristotle (known as Ari) faces a seemingly never-ending sadness and discontent about his life that is only somewhat alleviated when he meets Dante, who appears to be the absolute contrast, and shows Ari that there is more open to him in his life than he is letting in.

Owing to the extent that characters are present in the novel, I think it is worth mentioning that there is very little actually in the way of plot for me to review. A&DDTSOTU is a hugely character driven novel in which there are two central dramatic events; however they are evenly spaced in the first third and last third of the novel rather than forming one main turning point in the story. The novel’s brilliance relies not on what happens, but rather how the characters within the novel respond to the events and what their reactions suggest about themselves. I have to admit, I fell a bit in love with this format. I think having little distinguishable plot but a phenomenal novel all round is an amazing feat and is of huge credit to Sáenz’s writing talent!

In addition, I think one of the points that cannot be stressed enough in relation to the novel is the overwhelming presence of the parents in the main characters’ arcs. Both Ari and Dante’s parents are in themselves essentially main characters and have a large bearing on the events of the novel and particularly Ari’s feelings. I think I can honestly say that I have never seen such growth of familial relationships in a YA novel before, and it was such a beautiful and refreshing thing. Ari’s relationship with his parents to begin with is closed off as his mother deals with Ari’s brother being in prison and as Ari’s father deals with the horrors of his memories of war. Dante, again, presents an utter contrast with the affectionate and adoring relationship he shares with his parents. As the novel wears on, however, we see a quite frankly incredible growth of Ari’s relationship with his own parents as they learn to open up and truly trust in each other. This theme is, I think, particularly lost in YA literature as even now I am struggling to think of another novel in which the parents play such an important and positive role, and I think particularly at the teen age this is something that needs to be far better represented. Luckily for us, Benjamin Alire Sáenz absolutely nails it.

Alongside family, identity is another hugely important theme within the novel. Sexuality and race are present throughout the whole of the novel as both boys struggle with not fitting in with their Mexican-American identities, whilst both also deal with their sexuality and Dante in particular, sadly, deals with homophobia. Again, however, these themes are sensitively and beautifully dealt with. Without wanting this to become too much like an essay, I cannot miss out the fact that this feeds into one of the most prevalent themes of the novel, which is the symbolism that is effortlessly weaved into every page. Throughout, the imagery of wounded birds and rain comes up again and again. The unrelenting rain at particularly dramatic parts of the novel was an extremely effective use of pathetic fallacy to convey the outpouring of emotion that Ari bottles up for most of the story, with the wounded birds clearly being used as a metaphor for Ari’s vulnerability, and to some extent, Dante’s as well. Ari is constantly longing for the rain, for the sadness to leak out of him, whereas Dante seemed to me to be the human form of summer; Ari mentions on many occasions the extent to which Dante inspires him to live and to be free. This was part of what I loved so much about the novel; both characters complement each other in the most interwoven and stunningly developed ways.

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One thing that may not have seemed obvious in my review is, however, that I awarded A&DDTSOTU four out of five stars, rather than the full five. I think that this is largely due to the fact that although I did love the point reached by the ending, I felt that it was slightly rushed as the resolution comes virtually on the last page and there is no time given for this to be expanded upon. I realise that a sequel is in the works, however I still think Sáenz could have given us a little bit more on how Ari came to the realisations he did and how he felt afterwards. Despite this, the novel is exceptional on the whole and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for beautiful prose, deeply developed characters and relationships, and delicate exploration of large and meaningful themes.

Thank you for reading this little ramble, and have a great day!

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