Fadzlishah Johanabas's Reviews > Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
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Jan 03, 14

Recommended for: Everyone
Read from July 20 to 21, 2012

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It is the beginning of summer in 1987 and Aristotle Mendoza--Ari, as he calls himself--is a jaded, disillusioned 15-year-old who lives in the shadow of a much older brother who's not even there, who's not even spoken of by his parents. Ari only knows his brother is in prison for something he did when he was Ari's age.

Then he meets Dante Quintana, the boy who teaches Ari how to swim.

Dante is everything Ari is not. He is fair-skinned, much too American to be a Mexican-American in El Paso, outspoken, loves as openly as he is loved, and above all, hates wearing shoes. He loves to read. He loves poetry. He especially loves works by William Carlos Williams. He adores his parents, and they are fierce when it comes to loving and protecting him.

When I woke, Dante was gone.

He hadn't left any of the sketches that he'd done of me. But he did leave a sketch of my rocking chair. It was perfect. A rocking chair against the bare walls of my room. He'd captured the afternoon light streaming into the room, the way the shadows fell on the chair and gave it depth and made it appear as if it was something more than an intimate object. There was something sad and solitary about the sketch and I wondered if that's the way he saw the world or if that's the way he saw my world.

I stared at the sketch for a long time. It scared me. Because there was something true about it.


Ari, on the other hand, loves being alone. He has this anger inside him, and he's constantly afraid that he'll end up like his brother. He longs to connect with his war-haunted father, but at the same time is frustrated by how distant, how disconnected his father is. His mother is the only one who gets him, but he has a sinking feeling she is afraid he will end up like his brother, too.

And then there was this whole thing with my name. Angel Aristotle Mendoza. I hated the name Angel and I'd never let anybody call me that. Every guy I knew who was named Angel was a real asshole. I didn't care for Aristotle either. And even though I knew I was named after my grandfather, I also knew I had inherited the name of the world's most famous philosopher. I hated that. Everyone expected something from me. Something I just couldn't give.

So I renamed myself Ari.

If I switched the letter, my name was Air.

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.


In the span of two summers, the boys grow. They grow apart, yet at the same time they grow ever closer. Dante is the only one who gets Ari, even though he knows he may never get Ari. Because Ari doesn't even get himself. He is desperate to get to know his father, to get to know his brother, that he doesn't realize that the person he is searching for is himself.

My father was still there, sitting on my rocking chair.

We studied each other for a moment as I lay in bed.

"You were looking for me," he said.

I looked at him.

"In your dream. You were looking for me."

"I'm always looking for you," I whispered.


I picked this book up at random almost a year ago when I browsed the Young Adult shelves at Kinokuniya. Something about the cover grabbed my attention. In a sense, books are still judged by their covers regardless what people may say. I seldom look for books based on reviews or recommendations. Sometimes I hit rocks and sometimes I hit gold. With this book, however, I hit the mother lode. The Arkenstone, if we want to get all geeky about it.

For that almost-one-year, I've bought the hardcover, four copies of the ebook (1 for myself & 3 for my friends), and an unabridged audiobook. I've read the hardcover three times, read the ebook twice, and listened to the audiobook twice. I've also written to the author to personally thank him for sharing the book with the world, and he's written back.

It's that beautiful.

Benjamin Alire Saenz has a way with words. Since I read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, I bought other books he's published. 1 I bought at Kinokuniya, the rest I had to order online from Amazon. They are all beautifully written, but this book is his best to date. The prose is lyrical, but it is also an effortless read. You don't sense the author's voice. You only hear Ari. And you feel for him. And you want to hug him and tell him that everything will be all right.

Because Ari lives. Dante lives. Their parents live. You want to get to know them more. You want to have dinner with them. You want to protect the boys from the harsh world while they discover the secrets of the universe and change the world with that discovery.

I read novels for pleasure, but with this book.... I want to achieve even half of what Mr Saenz has achieved with his prose. Reading this makes me want to be a better writer. It makes me look out for other books as beautiful as it is, because if one person is able to write something this brilliant, then perhaps there are similar writers, similar books out there.

Forget your aversion toward two boys loving each other. Forget your bigotry, forget your prejudice. Get lost in this book, and fall in love with the boys.

And maybe one day the world will be a beautiful, wonderful place for all children who play by different rules.
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