“Beautiful” is a word frequently used to describe Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and that’s the first word that came to my mind as well. It has its painful and brutal moments, but its exploration of coming of age, cultural and sexual identity, and relationships of all kinds is a beautiful and emotional journey for the reader. It opens in Texas when the boys first meet in the summer of 1987, a few months before Ari (short for Aristotle) turns 16. They have both always felt like loner outcasts, but they immediately bond with each other on a fundamental level. The novel follows them through two years, to the summer before senior year. (I graduated high school in 1988, so it was interesting to think that Ari and Dante could have almost been my classmates, and it certainly made me think about how things have changed now that my own kids are getting close to this age.)
Ari is our narrator, and we’re firmly inside his head as he wrestles with what it means to be a teenager, a son, a friend, a Mexican. Although he would never admit it out loud, he’s as philosophical as his namesake, and the prose is lyrical, thought provoking, and emotional. I cried more than once (which, if you read a lot of my reviews, you know is something that happens with some regularity, but it’s still a measure of how effective the storytelling is).
The book deals with some pretty mature topics and requires a certain amount of maturity, so it’s probably best for young teens and up. The chapters tend to run short, sometimes very short, and although it’s introspective, the plot doesn’t drag. I love the cover–it’s totally the reason I looked more closely at this book!
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
This is a book about 15-17 year old boys. They’re thinking and talking about sexual relationships. Sex itself is still kind of taboo, with kissing being what’s mostly on their minds. Although there are no prolonged kissing scenes, there is definitely kissing happening, frequently as a method of exploring sexual preference. Dante talks about masturbation and it’s certainly something he enjoys. Ari doesn’t masturbate—he thinks it’s kind of a weird thing to do.
The first girl Ari kisses ends up getting knocked up by her boyfriend who’s in a gang. She drops out of high school to marry him.
Dante’s mother gets pregnant and there’s some discussion about whether or not parents keep having sex.
Dante figures out pretty early that he’s gay. He finds kissing girls pleasant, but he’d really rather be kissing boys. He tells Ari this, but feels he can’t tell his parents—he’s convinced they’d be disappointed that he’ll never give them grandchildren. He knows he’s in love with Ari and hints strongly at it. At some point he pressures Ari into kissing him, just to see how it feels. Ari says he doesn’t like it, and eventually they get over that weird speed bump in their friendship, although it’s hard for Dante to be in love with someone who views him as only a friend.
Dante starts a relationship with Daniel, and when some boys see them kissing in an alley, they come at them. Daniel runs away, but Dante stands his ground and is beaten up pretty badly. This is how Dante’s parents learn for sure that he’s gay (although they suspected it beforehand). They’re upset not only that Dante was beaten up, but that he felt he couldn’t tell them. They realize that Dante is in love with Ari and tell him so. Ari promises he will always be Dante’s friend.
Ari’s favorite great-aunt lived on her own, isolated from everyone in her family expect for Ari’s mom. After her death, Ari realizes that this was because she was gay and lived with her lover—a thing that didn’t bother Ari’s mom, but caused the rest of the family to essentially disown the aunt.
At the very end, Ari’s parents help him realize that he’s suppressing his own homosexuality and that he’s actually in love with Dante. This part bothered me a bit because to me it implied that you can’t really love another person your age unless you’re in love with them. Two boys couldn’t possibly feel as connected as Ari and Dante unless they had a romantic relationship. Because we’re in Ari’s head through the whole story, I wanted to see more hints that this was the case before his parents basically say they know he’s gay because of how much Dante means to him. I had known before I started reading the book that it dealt with homosexuality, so I expected Ari to realize he was gay at some point; however, as the book went on I thought I’d been mistaken and that it was instead an exploration of how a straight boy and a gay boy could still be best friends, and in the end that would have felt like the more honest and daring book to me. Ah, well.
The portrayal of familial relationships is really the strong point of this book. Dante and Ari both have loving parents who are still married to each other, but that doesn’t mean life is perfect. The parents struggle to know and understand their children, while the boys struggle to know and understand their parents. But there is deep love running through all of it, along with anger and regret and lots of other complicated emotions.
The boys learn more about their parents—their backgrounds, their struggles, their stories—and realize that parents are actual complex human beings. This is a bit of a revelation. I love that the parents aren’t absent or stereotypes as seems to be the case in many books for younger readers.
Violence and Accidents
Dante challenges boys who were shooting birds for fun. This is a defining aspect of his character.
Trying to save an injured bird, Dante is standing in the middle of the street when a car comes around the corner. Without thinking about it, Ari dives into him, saving his life and getting very badly injured in the process. He breaks both legs and an arm and spends months in casts and physical therapy.
For years, Ari relives the accident and variations on it in nightmares.
When Dante is beaten up by the boys, he ends up in the hospital with cracked ribs and a face swollen beyond recognition.
Ari finds one of the boys who beat up Dante and breaks his nose.
Ari’s brother is in prison for killing two people when he was Ari’s age.
Ari’s dad is a Vietnam vet. He deals with nightmares and awful memories from the war. This is mostly referred to as his private war he’s still fighting, but eventually he starts to open up and shares some difficult stories.
Ari doesn’t like to be looked at as a hero for saving Dante’s life. He fears that Dante and his parents now like him because he saved Dante, not because he’s Ari. He forbids Dante to bring up the accident with him. He gets mad when Dante tells some other kids what happened.
Toward the end of the book, he realizes that he feels like Dante saved him, rather than the other way around. Since meeting Dante, he’s learned to live life and come to terms with himself and others. Not all heroes are obvious.
Drinking and Drug Use
The boys smoke pot, without consequences. Lots of kids drink, and eventually Ari drinks enough beer to get really drunk—this helps him deal with nightmares, so it seems like it could actually turn into a coping mechanism for him. He doesn’t start drinking regularly, but he drinks or wants to drink when he’s upset. His mother makes him promise he’ll never drink and drive, which he abides by.
Ari’s parents let him drink beer with them a few times—this was one of those “My, how times have changed” moments for me.
One of Ari’s acquaintances does harder drugs and tries to get Ari to do drugs with him. Ari admits to curiosity particularly about heroine, but chooses not to.
Both boys end up on painkillers due to their injuries and there’s some talk in passing about how it would be easy to get addicted.
Ari’s mom is Catholic and helps with the food bank and other services for the poor—she was poor and wants to give back now that things are better for her. Ari gets volunteered to help out as well, and he mentions that the old Catholic ladies are a support for his mother. Ari is agnostic, but goes to church. It’s mentioned in passing that Ari and Dante go to Mass together, as though that’s a normal thing to do—it’s obvious that the Catholic Church is an integral part of the neighborhood culture.
Both Ari and Dante call themselves Mexican, but Dante—with lighter skin and highly educated parents and different experiences—frequently feels he can’t claim that identity and is kind of embarrassed by it. Ari jokes to his mother that he’s going to join a gang because that’s what Mexicans do, but she doesn’t find that even a little bit amusing. It seems that being Mexican is part of what makes Ari suppress his sexuality—like being gay and being Mexican can’t exist together.
Silence and Secrets
It’s important to Ari that he know and understand the people around him, but many seem inscrutable to him. As much as he wants to know others, he has no interest in sharing anything about himself, even with people he’s close to. He’s very open with the reader, though, so we get a good sense of who he is. Dante is very open—more than Ari sometimes wishes—so we get to know him as well. Other secrets are revealed as Ari’s relationship with his parents and his understanding of himself evolve through the story. We learn more about the war, more about his brother in prison and how his mother coped (or didn’t) with that. Ari’s parents start to realize that keeping secrets isn’t necessarily the best way to deal with things that are uncomfortable.
There’s a good bit of language that wouldn’t be appropriate for school. Swearing is a form of rebellion and breaking the rules. Whether Ari checks his language in front of his mother is a very conscious choice on his part, depending on the tone he means to set with her.
While I was left a bit unsatisfied by the ending, this is an engaging, thought-provoking, and beautifully written book. Ari’s struggles will be familiar to any kid trying to navigate the ground between childhood and adulthood. It’s certainly not full of pedantic lessons since drinking and mild drug use don’t carry obvious consequences. Due to content and themes, it’s probably most appropriate for kids in high school—I’d have no problem letting my 14 year old read it. It’s probably very good for teen reluctant readers.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Published in 2012 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Read on Kindle