Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s literary genius swept me off my feet
I am an impulsive reader. I make TBRs (To-be-read lists) and when the time comes to actually pick a book, I select something completely different from what I had in mind.
One rainy September afternoon, I had just finished the second instalment of the brilliant Deavabad trilogy by S A Ckaraborty and was browsing for a new book to read. My mind was made that I would start a new fantasy fiction series, when a curiously titled book called Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz caught my attention.
From the title and the tags (Young Adult romance/LGBTQ), I could surmise this would be a coming-of-age story of two boys who love each other. This was as far away from fantasy fiction as could be possible, but my curiosity was piqued. I decided to give the book a try.
I expected some sappy romance, a lot of overtly sentimental Nicholas Sparks plot twists, or at the very least, a dash of sexy erotica Fifty Shades of Grey-style. What I didn’t expect was to fall in love from the very first page, to read past midnight, to read at work, to read all through the day because I simply couldn’t get enough of the characters. I didn’t expect to slam the book shut at moments, take a deep breath to myself and gush over how amazing the writing was, about how deeply I felt for the characters, and how this heart-touching tale was fast becoming one of my favourite reads of 2020.
This post is not a review. Rather, it is an expression of my love, of how deeply the writing touched me, and how, despite what your preferred genres are, you should give this book a read. Trust me, it is worth all the hype and more.
This book is about Aristotle Mendoza and Dante Quintana growing up in El Paso, Texas during the 1980s. The two Mexican-American teenagers are trying to find their way in the world. But before they do that, they need to find their way to each other.
Aristotle (Ari, to his friends) is a self-doubting silent guy, who has learned from experience to bottle his feelings up. He prefers to be alone rather than tolerating the stupidity of people. He writes daily in his journals, but holds his secrets so tight to his chest, nobody can get close to them, not even himself.
Dante, on the other hand, is an expressive, fair skinned boy who meets Ari at the pool one afternoon and asks him if he should teach him swimming. Dante reads poetry and loves painting. He makes Ari laugh and fills his world with colours, and before they know it, the two become the best of friends.
We experience the story from Ari’s perspective. He is a narrator you will both hopelessly love, and get frustrated at how stubborn he can be.
I sometimes think that I don’t let myself know what I’m really thinking about. That doesn’t make much sense but it makes sense to me. I have this idea that the reason we have dreams is that we’re thinking about things we don’t know we’re thinking about — and those things, well, they sneak out of us in our dreams. Maybe we’re like tires with too much air in them. The air has to leak out. That’s what dreams are.
It is a testament to Sáenz’s brilliant writing how he manages to make the characters of Aristotle and Dante exposed and layered throughout the book. They grow more complex with each chapter, at the same time, also becoming more bare.
The character growth is brilliantly done. As a reader, one can can see how Ari changes with age. In the beginning, he is a 15-year-old boy. He talks and thinks like a 15-year-old boy. But with time, he discovers these new depths to his personality. Especially through Dante’s influence, he evolves.
Dante, on the other hand comes across as a happy-go-lucky teenager who wears his heart on his sleeve. But as Ari comes to know of his nuances, the reader understands that this little ray of sunshine also has his own secrets. As he matures, he becomes more distant and brooding, but the spark in his soul that made me instantly fall in love with him doesn’t extinguish.
“I got to thinking that poems were like people. Some people you got right off the bat. Some people you just didn’t get — and never would get.”
Benjamin Alire Sáenz is a master of his own breed of poetic prose. He doesn’t use complex words, but every sentence in this book deeply impacted me. There was magic in the little things, in his attention to detail. Every description of Dante’s laugh, every moment the boys spent joking around each other, every adventure they had together — the author made me feel like I was there, experiencing their friendship and tasting the sweetness of their bond.
More than the writing, it was the mood and tone of the prose that drew me in and made me feel warm and mellow. Here are a few of my favourite quotes:
“Sometimes, you do things and you do them not because you’re thinking but because you’re feeling. Because you’re feeling too much. And you can’t always control the things you do when you’re feeling too much.”
“I wondered what that was like, to hold someone’s hand. I bet you could sometimes find all of the mysteries of the universe in someone’s hand.”
“Do you think it will always be this way?”
“I mean, when do we start feeling like the world belongs to us?”
I wanted to tell him that the world would never belong to us. “I don’t know,” I said. “Tomorrow.”
“I didn’t care because what mattered is that Dante’s voice felt real. And I felt real. Until Dante, being with other people was the hardest thing in the world for me. But Dante made talking and living and feeling seem like all those things were perfectly natural. Not in my world, they weren’t.”
You can call Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe a love story. But in its heart, it’s the story of a boy who is sad and angry and can’t figure out why. It’s a story of self-discovery, about how he tries to love himself and others.
It’s about friendship, family, trust, loyalty and learning to be honest to ourselves about who we truly are.
It’s a take on the pains of being a misunderstood teenager and the struggle of dealing with a world so hell-bent on ostracising what it considers as “different”.
It’s a book you MUST read, for it will leave you with tears of happiness and goosebumps all over your skin.
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