I’m one of those people who’ll buy a book on a whim because the title is so enticing. For me, those books never disappoint — Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is one of those books.
Written by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, a Mexican-American author and poet, the novel gives the reader an insight into the life of teens growing up in El Paso, New Mexico. The novel itself follows a beautiful friendship that continues to develop through separation, the anxieties of adolescence, and the process of finding out who they are. The theme of identity is one of the most crucial parts of the novel because it doesn’t try to represent what is shown in most novels that end up in the spotlight.
The two main characters — Aristotle (“Ari”) and Dante — are both Mexican-Americans, but have different relationships with that identity and what it means to them. Aristotle is proud of his heritage, even though he makes jokes about joining gangs to annoy his mother. There is a strong “anti-stereotype” shown, all the Mexican characters we meet are respectable, but none can escape the belief of what a Mexican person should be. Dante regularly struggles with this cultural identity and this is a key part of his character — he battles an internal shame of being Latino, while also coming to terms with a fluid sexuality that he doesn’t quite understand yet.
Representation runs all the way through the novel, they fight stereotyped identities that people can see (like Dante with his race), and also internal battles that people have with themselves (such as sexuality). These parts of the characters aren’t the only issues explored, like they have been in other queer works. The two main characters come to terms with their sexualities differently, in a way rarely portrayed: one struggles for the entire book with who he is, the other accepts himself as he is. There’s a lot to be said for the way their parents reacted, too — there can never be enough stories of acceptance of LGBT people.
Even the family members of the main characters help to make the novel more well-rounded. One I was particularly struck by was Ari’s father, who returns from the Vietnam war, shell-shocked and estranged from his family. There is a representation of PTSD that is never seen is fiction like this — it’s never fully explored because the father can’t talk about what he has seen, but it is an acknowledged part of him. The book shows a family trying to understand how there has been no ceasefire for the father’s experiences, but they show him as much love as they can give him. They try to relate to him, and the mental illness he suffers as a result of the war becomes a fact of life. One of the strongest moments for me in the book is when Ari asks his mother about whether it is easy to love him after the war, whether she can comprehend him now, she replies, “I don’t always have to understand the people I love.”
There’s something in this book for everyone. There is diversity of race, of sexuality, mental illness, but, at the core, there’s a genuine, sweet, profound relationship between two very different characters. There aren’t many books that can give you so much diversity in one book and not even make it the unique selling point. It really is a heartwarming story.