Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Discovering the Secrets of the Universe...and of Yourself

When a book starts out with "The problem with my life was that it was someone else's idea," you know you're in for a rough ride.  The heartbreaking and beautiful Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is rough, soft, draining, and uplifting in a way that is hoped for but unexpected.  Published in 2012 by American poet and author, Benjamin Alire SáenzAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a novel marketed to the young adult audience and explores a several year friendship between two Mexican-American young men, Aristotle (Ari) and Dante, who could not be anymore different.  However, they are strangely drawn to one another and become fast friends.  Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is more than just a story about friends though; it is about discovering the secrets of the universe, which, in the end, is discovering who you truly are.

Ari is a quiet, unsure teen, who is struggling with himself and with his family dynamics, loving, but wounded by the absence of his imprisoned brother.  Dante comes from a supportive, open home and is confident, self-possessed and borderline brilliant.  One of the more controversial aspects of this book is the friendship between Ari and Dante; Ari is struggling with his sexual identity, while Dante is confident in his homosexuality, just like he is confident in everything else about himself.  Their friendship becomes increasingly complicated when Ari realizes that he might be more emotionally invested in Dante than he expected to be.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz
This book is one of the best  YA novels I have read.  It unfolds slowly, but beautifully.  The characters are onions; there are layers and layers to each characters and Sáenz seems to delight in revealing their secrets. The characters are the main force in this book and they are well developed and are extremely easy to relate to. The action is driven methodically towards a climax that is rather predictable, but at the same time satisfying. Sáenz was not afraid to tackle hard hitting topics.  The book covers a myriad of topics, ranging from sexuality to family secrets to growing up to self-acceptance.  Ari's fear that he will become just another angry, imprisoned Mexican-American man like his brother is an undercurrent that drives his actions; he struggles with his emotions and feelings, and tries hard to balance his own wants, Dante's wants, and what he perceives are his parents'  wants.  The concept of keeping the peace with his parents also colors his relationships with others; Sáenz captures the never-ending angst of trying to be yourself while simultaneously trying to be the child your parents want you to be.  Sáenz also illustrates the difficulty of being a a homosexual Mexican-American male, especially during the time setting of the book (1987).  Ari fights his blossoming feelings for Dante, largely because he cannot mesh being Mexican-American and being in love with a male.  His struggle is contrasted with Dante, who does not seem to be bothered by his ethnicity and sexuality at all.  This quiet confidence makes Ari even more uncomfortable and it leads him to make some choices that will define his and Dante's paths forever.  Love is a powerful motivator in this book and Sáenz makes sure to illustrate the different types of love; parental, sibling, friends, romantic, all types of love can impact and reveal the secret of who you truly are.  Young love is more than just a flight of fancy in this book.  Sáenz makes is a defining concept for the characters and draws the reader into reflection of love being a defining characteristic of life.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is Sáenz's love letter to youth, self-discovery, and second chances.  You will cry, you will reflect, you will cringe, and you will be pulled into this story of love, self-discovery, and ultimately, self-acceptance.  It will make you view your life with new eyes and wonder what is holding you back from self love, self acceptance, and your own secret to the universe. 

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