Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

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Genre: Realistic Fiction

A 2013 Americas Book Award Commended Title

A 2013 ALA Notable Book for Children

I’m going to divide my review into two sections – one without spoilers, one with – because I can’t really say what I want to say without giving the end away.

No spoilers:

This book has been winning awards left and right and the author just won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, which is pretty prestigious. I know  it’s getting a lot of attention because it’s a young adult book about homosexuality – the only YA novel I know of that has this as a main plot point, although there are others? probably? just not as prominent? – but that kind of cheapens it. That’s the great part about it – it’s a book about discovering/coming to terms with being gay (yourself or a loved one) but it’s a complete story that’s about a lot of other things too. That’s just one of its topics, just like in life. Gay people are not one dimensional, and neither are these characters or this story. (I apologize if my language in this review is imprecise. I know some people say being gay is something they always know, while others have to discover it as they mature.)

Anyway, the story is about Aristotle – Ari – a young Latino man who is something of a loner. His siblings are grown and gone, and his parents won’t even acknowledge the existence of his older brother, who is in prison. He feels like he can’t talk to his father about anything, and he has no friends to speak of, until he meets Dante, who turns his world upside down with his zest for life. The story is about how the friendship between the two boys develops, how Ari learns more about himself as he grows, and how his relationship with his parents heals. It’s a book about growing up as much as anything else.

I feel kind of blasphemous saying this in light of all the love for this book and accolades for the author, but I found it kind of unremarkable.  I’m not Latina and I’m not gay, so I have no idea how much of the book is authentic in terms of the emotions a Latino and/or gay young adult might be experiencing. I will say that if you read this as you would any other young adult book, a lot of it did not feel authentic. Ari’s inner dialogue and some of the outer rang true, but then he or Dante would do or say something that would kind of raise my eyebrows because it didn’t sound like any teenager I’d ever met. Maybe it’s because (at first) I was evaluating their friendship as a relationship between two straight boys, which it’s not. I mean, what teenage boy would let his friend give him a sponge bath? Does any of it become more believable if one of the boys has a crush on the other? I would really love the perspective of someone who has gone through the process of coming out or figuring out they are gay in regards to this book.

I really liked the relationship Ari had with his parents, and some of his friendship with Dante, but I was spending a lot of my reading time trying to figure out just what his relationship with Dante was. Which is probably the author’s point – the boys themselves are trying to figure it out – but I just couldn’t like, get inside their friendship. I couldn’t relate. Also, the boys have the most understanding, liberal parents ever, which goes a long way to making the road smooth for them, and also had me a bit skeptical.

SPOILERS AHEAD!! Skip a paragraph

I think I was spending a lot of the book trying to figure out the nature of Ari’s feelings for Dante, and instead of enjoying a slow reveal I did a lot of switching back and forth. When I started the book, I didn’t know it dealt with homosexuality, but as I was reading I started thinking maybe they were gay. And if not, then their friendship was really homoerotic. Then we find out that Dante is gay, and I think maybe the boys will get together, but no…Ari says he likes girls and when Dante kisses him he feels nothing. Then I started reading the book as a really beautiful story of friendship…Ari can’t return Dante’s feelings but he is brave enough to stand by his friend even though Dante is gay, even though Dante is in love with him. And I kind of liked that book as I was reading it. So when Ari finally comes to terms with his feelings for Dante at the end, I felt kind of cheated. I felt like I had to go reread the book knowing that Ari is really gay, because he really didn’t let much of it show, and I wanted to understand his actions and thoughts better. As a reader I would have liked more of an inkling as to what was really going on. I felt like Ari lied to the reader when he buried his feelings for Dante so deep even he didn’t know they were there.

END OF SPOILERS

Basically, it’s an interesting read, but not a must-read. I do think that it would be a great recommendation for any kids 7-12 who are gay, if for no other reason than it must be nice to read some fiction you can relate to, about protagonists who are going through what you are going through but have other stories to tell as well. It’s about time we had some YA fiction with gay protagonists.

Caveats: it has some objectionable language, some discussion of sexual things, and I hate that it’s a caveat but you should be careful before recommending it without discrimination because some parents, sadly, will get their knickers in a twist if their kids come home with this book. Definitely preview first.

Teaching resources:

Publisher’s website: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Aristotle-and-Dante-Discover-the-Secrets-of-the/Benjamin-Alire-Saenz/9781442408937

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation: http://www.glaad.org/

The Human Right’s Campaign page about Supporting and Caring for Latino LGBT Youth: http://www.hrc.org/youth

Sample essay prompts based on past MCAS Exam essay prompts:

1.  In many works of literature, a character rebels against a role that others expect him  or her to play. Select a character from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe who rebels against a role others expect him or her to play. In a well-developed composition, identify the character, describe how the character rebels against others’ expectations, and explain how the character’s rebellion relates to the work as a whole.

2. Often in works of literature, a character learns or discovers something that changes his or her life. Select a character from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe who learns or discovers something that changes his or her life. In a well-developed composition, identify the character, describe what the character learns or discovers, and explain how the discovery relates to the work as a whole.

3. Works of literature often feature young characters who are in conflict with the adult world.  Select a young character from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe who is in conflict with the adult world. In a well-developed composition, identify the character, describe how the character is in conflict with the adult world, and explain how the conflict relates to the work as a whole.

Please leave questions, comments, book review requests, etc. below!

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