Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I read this novel as part of the Better Read than Dead YA Book Club - feel free to join us!
This book was a surprise for me. It was a cute little contemporary romance, but it had something a little different about it - maybe that the romance was not shoved in my face, that I was able to appreciate Aristotle and Dante as individual characters before they became a couple. Whatever it was that was different, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Aristotle and Dante were two very different characters. I enjoyed hearing the story from Ari's POV, because his thoughts gave me much more of an insight into his character than his words ever did. Even though I knew this was a contemporary romance going in, it did not read like a typical romance to me. It read more like a coming of age story that happened to have some romantic aspects in it. In the current literary world of forced romances and insta-love, I appreciated the slow development of Ari and Dante's love story.
Perhaps my favourite aspect of this novel was Sáenz's brilliant writing. The book was easy to read, because the writing was unpretentious, but beautiful, in a way that made me forget I was reading:
I thought it might be a great thing to be the air.
I could be something and nothing at the same time. I could be necessary and also invisible. Everyone would need me and no one would be able to see me.
Sáenz really highlighted the struggle of growing up as an introvert to me. Wanting to be important to others, but also wanting to be left alone - a hard balance to strike, especially when you are a teenager. Ari was sympathetic even when he was not particularly likeable - which is my favourite type of protagonist, and the hardest to get right.
I loved the mentions of both Dante and Ari's Mexican heritage in this book, as well. Of course, the LGBT love story was a great example of diverse YA. But I felt that Saenz had more to say about what it is to be a racial minority in the USA than he did about being LGBT. From Dante's regular comments:
"Well, at least you're a real Mexican."
"What do I know about Mexico, Dante?"
To Ari's strong, inspiring mother:
"I'm an educated woman. That doesn't un-Mexicanize me, Ari."
What it means to be Mexican, and how this differs from person to person, was a topic that Sáenz considered throughout this novel. It was interesting for me to consider how a person's ethnicity could define their existence, in positive and negative; desired and undesired ways.
Overall, this was a sweet contemporary romance with beautiful writing and layers of political commentary. I would recommend it to someone who wants an easy read, or anyone who wants a more diverse cast of characters in their contemporary novel.
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