#IMWAYR: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
I hope you all are doing well! If you're interested, I took some time last week as part of my new Thursday Thoughts series determining whether the phrase "Don't judge a book by its cover" is useful advice...or not! Check it out here!
But enough about me. For #IMWAYR today, I am recommending one of the most incredible books I have ever read in my life: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
(I'm marking this as an "All-Time Favorite" on my blog—I may change that in the future, but I have a sense this book will be sticking with me for a long time.) (Update [June 14, 2021]: This no longer applies, as I now label my favorite books in a different way—click here for details.)
Please note: this is a YA (young adult) book, not an MG (middle grade) book, and it contains mature content.
I'll be talking about this a bit more in an upcoming Thursday Thoughts post, because I think it bears noting, but I hope it will suffice for now to say that, despite my mother specifically suggesting this book to me (and despite her perfect track record of book suggestions), this book lingered on my bookshelves for at least 5 years, and I almost sold it to the used bookstore countless times. I never thought I would actually read this book, as it just didn't sound like something I wanted to read. So why did I finally read it? Well, first of all, I have had the strange experience of meeting people in real life who read similar books to what I read, and one of them suggested this book to me. And I figured, since I wanted to read at least some of their suggestions, this one made sense to choose, since I already owned it! And then Earl Dizon, who writes wonderful blog posts over at The Chronicles of a Children's Book Writer, recommended it (and its upcoming sequel!!!), which further nudged me into picking it up. And once I noticed the FOUR MEDALS on the cover, that definitely motivated me as well. But I think it bears noting that nothing—nothing—prepared me for how utterly gorgeous, and real, and powerful this book is. To save my energy for the endless amounts of praise I'll be heaping upon this book, I will be sharing the publisher's description instead of writing my own (and I'm actually retyping the description off of the back flap, because it's better than the online description).
Dante can swim. Ari can't. Dante is articulate and self-assured. Ari has a hard time with words and suffers from self-doubt. Dante gets lost in poetry and art. Ari gets lost in thoughts of his older brother who is in prison. Dante is fair skinned. Ari's features are much darker. It seems that a boy like Dante, with his open and unique perspective on life, would be the last person to break down the walls that Ari has built around himself.
But against all odds, when Ari and Dante meet, they develop a special bond that will teach them the most important truths of their lives, and help define the people they want to be. But there are big hurdles in their way, and only by believing in each other—and the power of their friendship—can Ari and Dante emerge stronger on the other side.
OK, I'm back. When I review most books, I can just state what I liked and didn't like. It's pretty easy to see how all the puzzle pieces fit together, and occasionally there's an ingenious solution in the story that makes you go "Oh!" and you mention it, but ultimately, you can see that it's a story, written by a human being. But Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (long title, I know) is a different kind of book. Because I can't just say that this story would have been better if one plot event hadn't happened, or one character was less this and more that, or if the sentences were written just a bit differently. I can't say those things for two reasons. One: because I'd be lying to you if I criticized anything about this book beyond the occasional lack of dialogue tags. And two: because if I let myself, I could believe that everything—every single thing—that happened in this book was real. I could believe that Ari, and Dante, and their families, were real people who I could track down and meet. And if everything in this book actually happened, well, then who would I possibly be to suggest that things happened otherwise? I feel like the plot of this book is just how things happened, and to suggest otherwise would be simply dishonest. I don't know what that means exactly, but I think it is absolutely essential to note. In short: this book is truthful.
Ari, the protagonist of this story (it's not multiple POVs or anything like that), is one of the most incredible protagonists I've ever seen in a book. I think if there were more people in this world like Ari, who fought for what matters without even knowing he was fighting, who thought deeply about things even as his emotions fought to bury themselves deeper within him, who cared so deeply about other people even throughout the frustration and angst—if there were more people like Ari, the world would be a much better place. It sounds ridiculous, but I honestly wish I could meet Ari. And I wish that I could be like him. And I know that there are ways in which I am like him, and that is one of the most reassuring things I could possibly know. The author of this book, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, has figured out—against all odds—how to write a character so relatable and normal that every reader could empathize with him, and then how to prove that character is so exceptional and incredible that readers could believe that they are, too. I am blown away. I'll talk more about Ari in the next few paragraphs, but before I do, I want to share this quote from a letter he writes on page 194: "This is my problem. I want other people to tell me how they feel. But I’m not so sure I want to return the favor." I did not know my life could be summarized in 3 sentences, and yet there they are, clear as a sunny day.
I feel like I keep bringing this up every single week, but a few weeks ago, I reviewed another book (a truly excellent one) called Are You Listening? by Tillie Walden. One of the things that I found most astounding about that book was the relationship between the two main characters, which did not fit neatly into the typical friends/family/lovers/etc. labels, yet was so natural and genuine and built on two people's true understanding of one another that I couldn't help but find it utterly believable. The book that I am reviewing today pulls off this same feat, arguably even better, with Ari and Dante. I took a class recently that pointed out the folly of relying on common-sense expressions when we have such utter opposites as "Birds of a feather flock together" and "Opposites attract"—and I think that bears noting hear because I feel like both of these apply to Ari and Dante's relationship. On the surface (or perhaps within these characters' self-concepts), the two are complete opposites. Ari sometimes comes across as a classic bitter teenager, which is not an insult—trust me, we all were one once (or even now). Ari is often frustrated with his mother being in charge of his life, or with his father's closed-off nature since returning from the Vietnam War (this book is set in the late 1980s, FYI), or with how little he has been told about his older brother (who is in prison), or just with the insistence of those around him that he have blind faith in things getting better as he gets older. Meanwhile, Dante appears as the polar opposite—he sees the beauty in practically everything, often reading poetry or drawing sketches of the world. Dante hasn't given up completely on being a child—just like his father (whom, like his mother, Dante loves dearly), Dante approaches things with a naïve-yet-beautiful childlike confidence, and openness, and attention, and vulnerability. It seems impossible that Ari and Dante, as different as they are, could get along so well. But the thing is—again, owing to Sáenz's Earth-shattering writing talent—as different as Ari and Dante appear on the surface, underneath, they are startlingly similar. Ari's dislike of those his age and Dante's unusually positive outlook on life mean that both these two don't fit in with the crowd. Ari's tendency to ruminate and wonder about why things have turned out this way meshes well with Dante's love of thinking about things and finding meaning in them—the two are both wise beyond their years. And, although I'm blanking on if the opposite is true (it's hard to tell from Ari's viewpoint), I am 100% confident that Dante brings out countless aspects of Ari that are not apparent from how Ari tends to present himself—whether those are starting to see the beauty in his own family, or looking at works of art and understanding them, or adopting a similar kind of determination to make his life into one that he wants to live in. It seems like Ari and Dante must have been written specifically to complement each other this well, but I suppose I will accept the likely-intended message here, which is that it only takes a few underlying similarities between people for them to connect deeply and bring out the best in each other.
And it's a good thing Ari and Dante have each other, because even as their relationship is strained and threatens to buckle, it is one of the only things that keeps at least Ari going through the literal smorgasbord of ridiculousness that is being a teenager. As I read this book, I was very much reminded of another stunning YA novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky—although there are countless ways in which these books are incredibly different, they also have some noticeable similarities. Rather than painting some idealistic portrait of being a teenager, both of these books are startlingly honest about what it is really like to exist in a space between that of childhood and adulthood. Just like in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, this book tackles what it is like to wonder what your role in the world will be, to be confronted with the high-school reality of parties and alcohol and drugs, to be both curious about and revolted by sex and romance, to learn things about yourself you never asked to know in the first place, to be wiser and more capable of loving and being loved than you've ever been, and to still be so, so far away from actually being a real adult. As someone slowly approaching the end of the ridiculous throes of teenage-hood myself, so much of what this book had to say about such an experience resonated with me. One particular aspect of this novel that resonated with me was Ari's dreams/nightmares, which appear to just be surface-level surrealist recapitulations of his life, but which in fact tell you so much about him as a character and act as truly excellent foreshadowing of how Ari develops throughout the book. And there's a particularly powerful realization Ari has about his dreams and how they affect him on page 178 that I just absolutely loved. Another thing that reminded me somewhat of The Perks of Being a Wallflower but is largely unique to this book is Ari and Dante's family. I have never seen this many adults in any MG or YA book that are all so beautifully fleshed out. As I mentioned earlier, Dante is pretty unashamed about, well, everything, but specifically about loving his parents—and you can totally see why, because both of them are delightful. But the real standouts for me were Ari's parents. Ari and his mother have such a powerful relationship—even as they bicker, or as Ari refuses/is unable to talk about his struggles with her (both of which were things that afflicted me in my teenage years too), Ari and his mother still have an unbreakable bond. They can laugh together, or make jokes together, and Ari also has that ever-important realization throughout the story that his mother is a full human being, and a wonderful, valuable one at that. Ari's father is a harder person to deal with—he appears to be dealing with PTSD and struggles to connect to his son. But even as Ari is frustrated with him or sad for him, he maintains a nuanced perspective of what his father is actually like, and his father learns throughout the story to meet Ari halfway. I read around one-half of this book in a four-hour sitting, and after that sitting, I found myself seeing the beauty more than I usually do in my own family, in our inside jokes and strange quirks and wonderful kindnesses. It is a rare book that can have any kind of impact on my real emotions, even for just a few hours, but this book managed. And although this paragraph has become an essay in and of itself, I do just have to say 2 more things. One: Sáenz's writing, through Ari's perspective, is just truly beautiful in and of itself—there are dozens, dozens, of short, simple statements with so much wisdom and impact that it's hard not to just keep looking up from the book and going, "Wow." And yet it all feels so real and totally in the voice of a teenager. It's truly astounding. And two: although I haven't discussed a single thing about how this book tackles the experiences of Mexican-American or LGBTQ+ people specifically (both of which it does), I will say that this book's ability not to make either of those issues its central focus actually makes its depictions of those experiences feel even more impactful and honest, if that makes any sense.
I have to finish off this review now, and I must say that I'm sad to leave this book behind and start something new (and inevitably less powerful). But I will say one last thing. I'm in that stage of my own life where I have to decide what kind of career to pursue. And it is books like this one that remind me just how powerful a story can be—books like these make me want to become an author. It is a curious thing, I must say, that the books that inspire me to want to write are the ones that I cannot possibly make sense of, and that I am almost certain I could never live up to. And yet, there may well be a day where I decide to try to write something of my own. And if I do, I can see myself in my mind's eye coming back to this book on my shelf, and this review I am posting now, and reminding myself of what it was like—what it was really like—to be a teenager, and to read a book that felt like it was written just for you. It is books like this one that make me feel like I have something valuable to say to the world. And it is books like this one that make me feel like, if I let myself be honest, and if I let the characters and story embody me completely, then maybe I can say something as impactful, as beautiful, and as real as what this book said to me.
My rating is: Stunning!