Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, written by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, is my absolute favorite book. The first time that I read it was in the summer of 2019. At the time, I had been reading through some queer young adult literature, and this one caught my eye. The moment that I started reading, I was absorbed into their world.
The book centers around a young boy named Aristotle, who goes by Ari, as he struggles to find ways to fill his free time during the summer. He decides to learn how to swim, and while he is at the pool, he meets another boy named Dante. They quickly bond over how they both have unique names, and their connection continuously develops throughout the book.
One aspect of this book that stands out is the structure in which it is written. Instead of having a distinct plot, the story follows Ari and Dante through a few years of their life. Many of the main events are mundane and simple, but they have great depth and meaning. For example, one of my favorite moments was when Ari was recovering from the flu and Dante had visited him. While Dante was there, he did a few sketches and left one for Ari to keep. It was a drawing of a rocking chair in Ari’s bedroom.
“There was something sad and solitary about the sketch and I wondered if that’s the way he saw the world or if that’s the way he saw my world. I stared at the sketch for a long time. It scared me. Because there was something true about it.”
Ari’s loneliness and introversion are topics that are touched on frequently throughout the book. He struggles to find a balance between the two, and this moment allows him to see himself through Dante’s eyes, revealing that he was, in fact, lonely.
Importantly, the story does not center around their love story. Instead, it is just one aspect of their personalities. Fleshing out identity is something that many other forms of queer media fail to accomplish, as they view being gay as the main point of a character’s life. Instead, Benjamin Alire Sáenz wrote Ari and Dante in a way that highlights all of the parts of their identity and life, not just who they are attracted to. An example of an identity struggle in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s novel is Dante’s internal conflict regarding his Mexican identity.
“Those names sound pretty Mexican,” I said.
“Yeah, well, I’m shying away from ancient classical names. And besides, if he has a Mexican name, then maybe he’ll feel more Mexican.”
In this conversation, Ari and Dante had just found out Dante’s mother was pregnant. They were brainstorming baby names, and Dante expressed his concerns about his future younger brother not feeling Mexican enough. This is a common topic that he touches on with Ari, as it is one of his internal struggles.
As an asexual person, Ari’s character resonated with me. The most touching part of the book was Ari’s realization that he was in love with his best friend. Their relationship was not portrayed in the same way as other romances because they were friends first.
I wanted to tell them that he was the first human being aside from my mother who had ever made me want to talk about the things that scared me. I wanted to tell them so many things and yet I didn’t have the worlds. So I just stupidly repeated myself. “Dante’s my friend.”
Platonic relationships are incredibly valuable, and this is often overlooked in society. Loving a friend for who they are can be just as deep as a romantic relationship. Aristotle and Dante showed this perfectly. Their romance does not start until the end of the book, and instead, the novel is focused on the development of their relationship. The pair had loved each other before they had a romantic relationship, and this made their bond even stronger.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is so much more than just a queer love story. It is about life and the struggles that young people face while growing up. The process of understanding one’s identity is difficult, especially when it has many angles. Ari and Dante’s story shows that even though this process is long and confusing, life can get better.
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