BOOK REVIEW: ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE BY BENJAMIN ALIRE SAENZ

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a touching coming-of-age story about a fifteen-year-old boy named Ari and his best friend, Dante, and their unique experiences in El Paso, Texas, as Mexican-American teenagers. I listened to the audio version of this story, and while I do believe it was overhyped, I’m fully aware that my personal listening experience could have been completely different if I had physically read the book. Don’t get me wrong: Lin-Manuel Miranda was a brilliant narrator and I thoroughly enjoyed his voice for all of the characters.

I also enjoyed the story’s depiction of family and the secrets we carry, vulnerability and how we all fight our “private wars,” and the authenticity of intense teenage friendships and romance. My heart ached for Ari as he talked about every family member, especially his father and the emotional distance between them. Dante was perfectly loaristotle-and-dante-discover-the-secrets-of-the-universe-book-coverveable in every way, and I couldn’t help but smile at his sensitive spirit and quirky one-liners. I also really, really enjoyed the dream sequences in this book. They were telling and beautiful and tragic—and they seemed to unravel a part of Ari that he didn’t know was there: the struggle he constantly faced to find the secrets of the universe and the secrets of himself. Also, the fact that he named his dog Legs makes me so incredibly happy.

As much as I wanted to love this book, however, I have to say that I was mostly underwhelmed. I enjoyed the story and thought it was cute and touching, but overall, I expected much more, and I’m not sure it gripped me as much as it gripped other readers. I’m all for angsty teen protagonists, but I want the angst to be founded in something real—even if I can’t understand it as a reader.

It’s understandable for a confused character to be upset and not know why or sad and not know why, but I found that I just couldn’t connect with Ari’s anger. I tend to empathize with angry characters, especially “strange” teen characters who are feeling emotions intensely for the first time and learning about themselves and the world around them. But the interior monologue, so often, was and that made me mad. I don’t know why or I really hate that.

I get that Ari is an emotionally stunted character learning to accept his own vulnerability—and that he does transition and grow thanks to Dante’s emotional honesty—but I don’t know if I fully believed Ari at times. When I DID believe him though—and his angst was founded in something real or he dug a little deeper—I was deeply moved. Those moments were in there, but in my opinion, they were few and far between.

It’s not that I was looking for fancy, flowery descriptions or vivid scenes, I just wanted something more . . . delicate. Sometimes the simple, subtle sentences jumped out at me, such as: “Love was always something heavy for me, something I had to carry.” I loved this, and I think my favorite parts of the book were when Ari was with his parents or Dante’s parents.

Overall, I enjoyed most of this book and I can see how it could be a favorite for some people. Ari and Dante are so endearing, and I also acknowledge that my listening experience may have affected how I feel about the story overall (the angst just doesn’t sit well with me when I listen to young adult books on audio, and I plan to avoid listening to YA books on audio in the future).