Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
by Benjamin Alire Saenz | ★★★★★
I remember I finished this book crying so hard I was shaking, in a good way, and then reading it twice more in the trip I finished it on because I loved it so much.
* This review contains spoilers.
Aristotle Mendoza is young and angry. With his brother in prison for assault, and his father loving but haunted by the Vietnam war, his main solace is in his friendship with a boy named Dante. Friendship would be his description of their relationship; when Dante kisses him around halfway through, he tells Dante it does not work for him. His internal narration in this scene cannot tell us differently, as it completely disappears.
Aristotle and Dante begins with Ari believing he must become a man in the patterns of masculinity that have come before him: he must be violent, protect himself and his friends by physically fighting back against bullies (as he does) and denying his feelings the chance to get in his way (as he attempts). “The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea,” Ari says in the first chapter of the book, encompassing the conflict: how is he meant to find his way as a man when there is only one path, one he does not fit? In Ari’s mind, love is vulnerability; loving a man is both vulnerability and hurt, meaning violence from others. (His brother, as we find out towards the end, is in prison for a hate crime — the violent assault of a trans woman.) Loving a man does not fit the role of a man, and so he represses. As Dante tells Ari:
“I guess I’m going to tell my dad. I have this little speech. It starts something like this. Dad, I have something to say. I like boys. Don’t hate me. Please don’t hate me, don’t hate me don’t hate me.”
We, as the audience, can see everything clearer; we figure out quite soon into the story, when he jumps in front of a car to save Dante, that Ari is falling in love. In fact, it is clear that some readers found it frustrating to read Ari deny himself feeling so completely; the Goodreads reviews should point to that. Yet for me, and for many other queer youth, seeing Ari’s self-denial rings true. Falling for a best friend is a uniquely devastating experience, and one most of us experience early on but are quick to repress.
(I say us, here, to mean people who are not heterosexual. My data pool for this statement is almost every queer person I’ve ever known.)
But for Ari, this is not a devastating experience; it is an experience in learning love and trust before even dating someone. Their friendship begins by a pool, joking about two ridiculous first names; it progresses into talking about everything under the sun. “He was the first human being aside from my mother who had ever made me want to talk about the things that scared me,” Ari says of Dante (although, of course, only in his head).
Aristotle and Dante ends with Aristotle realizing his feelings for Dante and confessing to him that he loves him: in other words, his ending is to realize that love is not a weakness. The conflict is his development into a man, but Ari’s realization that he likes Dante, and boys in general, is inextricably wound with his development into a man. Finding himself through the perils of toxic masculinity, in other words, is his coming of age.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, this book is gorgeous on every level. The prose of this book is excellent without being overtly pretentious. (I swear it flows across the page like music – it’s like John Green except less forced and never tiring.) I feel like I’ve explained this, but the character work outshines at least 99% of literature – Aristotle’s character development is amazing?? Incredible?? Changed me as a person?? Also, I could go on and on for this point, but the main characters have such a beautiful slow-build relationship – I could go on and on about how perfect Ari and Dante are together, and how sweet their interactions are. I also generally think this was one of the first books that taught me about narrative weight and narrative critique – there is homophobia deeply buried in this book, beneath the surface and on the page, but Alire Saenz is careful to acknowledge and understand it. It’s an exploration I doubt I’ll ever forget.
I think it’s, above all, that this is a book meant for us. It’s a book meant for our specific experiences, it is a book meant to be an exploration of us, not for anyone else. This is a deeply important book, for me, on a personal level. And I think it will be for many other readers.
**I want to note here that Alire Saenz’s behavior towards reviewers has not been ideal; sending emails to reviewers because you disagree is genuinely never okay, and though I believe there was a public apology for this (that I can no longer find) it’s something to be aware of when reading and reviewing his work. Stay safe, y’all.
TW: violent homophobia and transphobia, discussions of hate crimes.