#IMWAYR: Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Before I dive into my review (ha—get it?), I have a few quick things to mention. First of all, I recently had the chance to watch Disney's newest animated film, Encanto, and it is SO GOOD that I cannot believe it! It has it all—a totally awesome protagonist who defies the typical Disney Princess stereotypes (in fact, her foil is a Disney Princess-esque older sister who she does not get along with), a compelling plot with some serious emotional beats and insight, absolutely gorgeous visuals that you can't look away from, and quite a few original songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda that are so catchy they'll be stuck in your head, but so lyrically clever you'll be glad for the chance to hear them again and again and to pick out all the details you missed! If you were thinking Encanto sounded meh and you would skip it, well, think again.
(Oh, and while we're on the topic of animated movies, have y'all seen the trailer for the next Pixar movie, Turning Red? It looks SO GOOD, and it comes out March 11—I'm so excited!!)
Also, I do just want to mention that I have returned to college classes, so I will be kind of a flaming mess when it comes to comments. I may not be able to reply to your comments on my blog at all, but rest assured that I read them all and sincerely appreciate each and every one! And I will try my hardest to continue reading everyone's posts and commenting each week, but since I now have a Monday night class, I may not be able to leave comments until Tuesday or Wednesday night. So if you're wondering where I am, now you know!
Today, I am going to attempt to describe a book that is indescribable, and I have relieved myself of the stress of trying to capture the beauty of this book because I know that (a) I cannot, (b) all of you will know what I mean soon enough, since reading this book is pretty much a requirement of being an educated kidlit reader, and (c) this book is exactly why I blog in the first place: to serve stories that are so absolutely incredible that their names need to be shouted from the rooftops.
So what am I recommending? I am recommending Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, the highly anticipated sequel to a book that LITERALLY HAS FOUR MEDALS ON THE COVER, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. And there are NO spoilers of that book in this review, so read on!
By the way, this book is a young adult (YA) novel, not a middle grade (MG) novel, and it contains mature content.
(Also, I am currently beta-testing the slightly-shorter post format that I first used in my re-review of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane—we'll see how it works here!)
I wondered going into this book if it might fail to be as good as book 1, and I can tell you right now that the real question is if this book is better than book 1, a feat that I would not have thought was possible if I did not see it with my own eyes. In fact, I asked myself while reading this book if it was better than Goodbye Stranger, and considering that about 25% of my identity as a reader/writer is based solely around Goodbye Stranger, the fact that such a thought would even cross my mind should give you an idea of how incredible this book is. (Not that I will be making a conclusive determination here, since Goodbye Stranger is literally my soul.)
If you have read this book or the book that precedes it (which you must read first—do not start with this one), you know that trying to summarize this book briefly is an almost comically pointless endeavor. There is too much to say about this book to pack into a single paragraph. And so I think what I will do for this review is spend the entire review summarizing this book. But in order for that to work, you must read what I say with the assumption that every single theme included in this book is written as well as you could possibly imagine. I realize that is quite the assumption to make—and yet I promise you that it is well-founded. So now I will tell you what this book is about. (And I will be so vague that you might want to punch me, but hopefully I will also be convincing—which is more important anyway.)
This book is about Aristotle Mendoza, or Ari for short, a high school senior in a border town who thinks he is profoundly average and cannot understand why anyone would love him. And it's a truly astounding thing, how Sáenz writes Ari in such a way that it is so clear why he does not like himself, and it is also so freaking obvious that he is one of the most thoughtful, kind, incredible people I have ever seen, book or otherwise. (And snarky too, which makes for so many delightfully entertaining conversations—so many.) This book is about a person who is learning how to be an adult, a person who thinks he is changing into someone else when what I think is that these things were within him all along—he just had to learn to act on them. (Which I guess is a form of changing, to be fair.) This book is about a person who has to learn that, despite what he thinks, he is already on the right path.
This book is about the power of stories, of words. This book understands that other writers' idea that they have to conceal their meaning to get their readers to think is wrong. This book understands that if you just tell your readers the darn thing, they will think about it. (Trust me, they will think about it.) And yet, for the hundreds of pages of words in this book, this book also understands the power of silence. (And of brevity, considering the many chapters that are just one or two pages long—which isn't nearly as distracting or strange as you might think.)
This book is about learning not just to fix what is broken, but to push farther and accomplish things you never even dreamed of. This book proves its own worth—you might not have thought you needed a sequel to book 1, but trust me. You do.
This book is about love, and its beauty, and how it lives on in a person even after it ends. This book is about romantic love, and desire, and how even teenagers understand it far better than the world gives them credit for. (Unfortunately, this book has set the bar for YA romance for me, so I will permanently be disappointed by those kinds of books—although I already was, so I guess nothing's changed.) This book is also about love between family, and friends, and how it isn't desire, but it's still love. And this book is about learning to be loved, and even learning to take a compliment.
And I must go further and say that this book is actually about family, and about friends. It is about the journey from thinking your parents are irritating, and stifling, and unloving, to realizing that maybe they have something useful to say. (A lot of somethings, actually.) And maybe they love you. And maybe they can even be fun to be around. (I am very lucky to have similar feelings about my own parents.) This book is about reaching out to people you never thought could be your friends, and finding the beauty that resides within each and every one of them, a beauty you almost missed because you were too busy looking inside of you for what matters...when it was right there the whole time.
This book is about the conversations that change a person. And sometimes those conversations are under the stars, and it's clear from the beginning that they are worth remembering. And sometimes those conversations seem painfully awkward, a person being bold enough to say something a little bit strange or a little bit funny...that someone else remembers forever.
This book is about the world, a strange and beautiful place that Sáenz brings to life in beautiful prose without drowning us all in a bunch of endless description to wade through. But this book is also about hate, and how the world (or the people within it, at least) can make a person feel like they have no place at all, like their life and the things that matter so much to them are meaningless, disgusting, worth erasing forever. This book is set in 1989, and it is about the AIDS pandemic, and how human beings turned a blind eye and watched other human beings be erased.
This book is about grief, and letting go, and learning that certain things will always live on in your heart, in your memories, in how you act and choose to live your life. This book is about letting go of expectations that have kept you prisoner for so long. (I'm referring to a specific scene that I read, after which I paced around my room just repeating to myself how utterly brilliant and unexpected the resolution was. Unexpected. Utterly brilliant.)
This book is about being by the side of those who need you. And it is about letting people be by your side when you need them. (Even if it means acknowledging that maybe you aren't quite as unlovable as you think you are.)
And this book is about growing up. And it is about learning to reach out, and grab hold of your life, and change it. Shape it into the life you want it to be. This book is about being bold, and brave, and deciding how you want to live...and how you want to be.
This book is an ode to every beautiful thing in this world. Every single thing. And although it is a work of fiction, there is something so profoundly reassuring that someone in this world understood these things enough to write about them, and that quite a few someones in this world cared about these things enough to read about them. I can barely fathom how Sáenz manages to understand the world, and human beings, and thoughts and emotions this well—and the fact that he took all of that understanding and shaped it into an organized, thoughtful story that grabs you by the eyes and pulls you through its 528 pages faster than you could ever imagine...that is a feat I will never be able to understand, as hard as I try. (He wrote in the acknowledgements that this is the most difficult book he has ever written—and I can see it!)
But luckily for us, we don't have to understand how this book exists to know that it does exist. It exists. And it will make you laugh and smile (spontaneously as you read—you will look like a weirdo to the rest of your family, but it's fine), and it will almost make you cry, and it will make you look up every few pages just to stare into space and be awed by what it says, and it will bring you comfort, and it will bring you hope. And what is greatest of all...is that this hope is not vacant, or fabricated, or false.
This hope is earned. And thus it is the greatest hope of all.
My rating is: Stunning!
(Oh, and P.S. If you haven't read the first book in this duology, rest assured that it is an absolutely incredible book as well [remember the four medals?]—you need to read it first, but it's well worth it too!)