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Book Review – Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe”

Guest Writer review

After a hiatus, we’re happy to bring you another book review. Champaca intern Ishika Somany writes about Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Read on for her thoughts, get your copy of the book from Champaca.

“This was what was wrong with me. All this time I had been trying to figure out the secrets of the universe, the secrets of my own body, of my own heart. All of the answers had always been so close and yet I had always fought them without even knowing it. From the minute I’d met Dante, I had fallen in love with him. I just didn’t let myself know it, think it, feel it. My father was right. And it was true what my mother said. We all fight our own private war.”

My entire life, I’ve heard people telling me to cherish the way you love when you’re a teenager, to admire the conviction with which you feel for another person, because eventually, it fades into something softer, something gentler. It took less than three-hundred pages to transport me back to feeling fifteen again, reminiscent of the same torrential hunger for fighting for what you believe in.

Set during a high school summer, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe untangles the journey of two Mexican-American teenagers who find solace in one another as they fight to understand their identities and uncover their places in the world. The author, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, shows us the world through Aristotle, or Ari's eyes, the perspective through which the story is narrated. Striking an unlikely friendship, the perennially lonesome Ari finds himself complementing Dante’s intriguing and philosophical nature as he attempts to own the world he inhabits. The reader notices that Dante is unafraid to feel vehemently: analytical by nature, he craves art and literature to help him make sense of the world he inhabits. 

Dante grows more comfortable in his skin -  a transparency he allows his best friend to see in every aspect of his life. There’s a sense of sincerity in every one of his words, in his letters to Ari where he explores hushed topics of his fantasies of kissing boys, masturbation, or even escapism with drugs. His ability to dictate and display his every thought and feeling becomes more glaring, particularly even after life-changing events. Ari, on the other hand, struggles to acknowledge and understand his changing emotions. After a major event, Ari grows angry and more lost when he can’t explain his emotions or actions, particularly to himself. While Dante revels in his passions, Ari hides from them, keeping Dante or his own family at arm’s length as he wrestles to confront himself about his unconscious desires, or muster the courage to finally demand his family for the answers that he craves.

Through the book, we watch Ari struggle to manoeuvre his own demons. We see him continue to grapple with a loneliness that overpowers him. He struggles to survive the weight of his anger and the burning curiosity of his convicted brother’s estrangement. The pain of not finding comfort in his own skin is heightened by his tendency to wrestle with the intensity of his emotions, sexuality, growing pains and self-imposed solitude.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz unpacks the feeling of burdening delicately — the burden of another’s love for Ari weighs on him, deepening his fear of disappointing those he cares for the most, often translating into the way he governs his relationships.

As much as we see the growth of love, we also see Sáenz pay homage to parenthood. As both Ari and Dante scramble to find themselves and their place in this mysterious universe, we see a love letter to their parents with each step: how they gravitate towards them through their torrent of growing pains, how they find answers in small smiles and solidarity in transparent communication.

Full of soft revelations and unconscious desires that seep between the lines, this coming-of-age queer story unravels the constructs one hides behind, and takes the reader back to the gentle ferocity of adolescent love.

If you enjoyed this, you might also like We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Normal People by Sally Rooney, and The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

Ishika Somany is a media student who spends most of her time toying with cameras and owns more paint-splattered clothing than she would care to admit. She hopes one day Britney Spears will finally be left alone.

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