Some readers are pioneers. There’s nothing more boring for them than going back to stories they know. They delve into libraries and hunt through recent releases to find exciting new bookish experiences.
Sadly, this isn’t me. Just as I have a favourite cup (seriously, it makes all hot drinks taste better) there are a few much-loved plots I wrap around myself like a warm quilt. The characters are old friends and turning the pages feels like coming home.
So, when wondering what to read this week, I opened Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets Of The Universe for the second time. OK, it’s not on my multiple rereads list yet but it’s a strong contender.
The part that really blows my socks off is the protagonist’s emotional journey. Perhaps this is true of all coming of age stories (I only dip into Young Adult books now and again) but Benjamin Alire Sáenz had me laughing and crying with the characters.
There are no complicated flashbacks or tricky sentence structures. The author follows one viewpoint all the way through, keeping the writing straight-forward with plenty of dialogue. He drops the reader into the mind of an isolated, unhappy teenager.
Shoes and Pools
Aristotle, the fifteen-year-old narrator, is trying to make sense of the world. He’s from a Mexican-American family and lives in Texas in the late 1980s.
A reflective, unhappy loner, Ari struggles to relate to other boys his age. When he meets Dante at the local pool one summer, a shared joke (their classical names) leads to Ari’s first close friendship.
Dante is everything Ari is not. Emotionally open, he sketches and loves poetry. He has an ongoing hatred of shoes (yes, that’s right, shoes) and is close to his parents.
The story follows the pair’s increasing closeness and their steps towards adulthood. They explore life together, looking at cultural identities, sexuality, metal health and their places in their respective families.
This is a book that’s crying out to be turned into a film. There are some great, cinematic moments, including stargazing in the desert and beautiful (quotable) lines but it’s Ari and Dante who always take centre stage.
Dante is a joy to read (unless you love tennis shoes) and Ari’s character develops as he comes to terms with his unhappiness. Together they create a narrative that looks at society’s expectations in the 1980s and the treatment of LGBT people.
However, there are also dark sections. I don’t usually put trigger warnings into reviews but I feel it’s worth mentioning the violence in this book.
The story features homophobic attacks and people are shunned for their sexuality. Ari’s father is still struggling with the horrors he witnessed in the Vietnam War (“there’s a wound somewhere inside of him”) and Ari’s much-older, never-discussed brother is serving a long prison sentence.
Benjamin Alire Sáenz deals with the subject matter well. Despite the many issues the characters face, I feel he’s created a heartwarming story where people come together to cope with appalling circumstances.
Secrets of the Universe gave me one major surprise. If you’re anything like me, you expect books and films set in the eighties to barely, if ever, feature adults. Parents are conveniently absent while children discover lost pirate ships or use their bikes to rescue friendly space aliens.
This story takes a more realistic approach. Ari and Dante are part of strong family units and I love the way the author describes their complex relationships with their parents.
The adults are fully involved – and concerned – with their children’s lives while also having their own backstories.
Verdict: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a pleasure to read. The ending was just right. If the author ever produces a sequel, I’ll be buying it in hardback.