Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

I read this book as part of the Forever YA book club. I recently discovered my city has a local chapter. I was pretty excited. This was the book we would be discussing at the first meeting I could make it to and I have to be honest, discussing the book at the meeting was the only reason I finished reading it. This doesn’t mean I hated the book. My feelings about the book are both complicated and very simple. What I do hate is feeling like I am being forced to finish reading something. Outside forces at work in my personal happy place. It kind of feels like being back in school again. I made a promise to myself a few years ago that I wouldn’t waste my time reading books that I wasn’t into. But, I wanted to be able to speak intelligently about my opinion on the book, and I couldn’t do that unless I finished it. And I didn’t hate it. This book has hundreds of glowing reviews. Reviews talking about its poeticism. Its lyrical style. It’s deeply philosophical insights. So, I figured those things must be coming. They must be just around the corner and I wasn’t there yet because our main characters were only fifteen years old at this point and weren’t mature enough for that. This would change as they aged over the course of the novel. It would all become clear.

Then I reached the end of the book and I realized that nope, that was not the case. I want to reiterate again – I did not hate this book, but I also didn’t enjoy it. I found it completely middle of the road. It was mediocre. I don’t get the hype. There wasn’t anything about it that put it on my must recommend list. For me, the biggest part of that was the writing. I did not love the style. I found it very stiff and telly. It felt a little immature, and not because of the characters. Perhaps this was a choice by the writer. This barren, I-did-this-then-I-did-that style. One of the girls in the group listened to the audiobook and said that it was very lyrical for her. Maybe it worked better in that format. But for me, it was mostly boring to read at best and contrite at worst.

I also never bought into the boys’ relationship. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe they were attracted to each other. I get that this book was set in the 80s, so their relationship would have looked different from what we might expect to read if it were set today. I understand that Ari spent most of the book trying to figure out who he was, so seeing that attraction to Dante might not have even occurred to him. But I just never connected with Ari, so I guess I never really cared if he figured it out. I never had that moment where I shook the book in the frustration that they couldn’t see that they belonged together. I never had any questions or doubts about where this book was heading. Maybe that’s because there were stickers all over the front for all the awards it’s won – including lgbt awards – so the direction was always pretty obvious. The cover of the book really set the standard for what this book was doing.

All the awards and praise did that thing were my expectations were raised too much. I was expecting beautiful things. I did not find them. Maybe if I’d read this book when it first came out… I doubt it, the writing style would have been the same, but maybe. I went in with super high expectations and ended up with a book that never went anywhere. It was both stripped bare and trying too hard all at the same time. The scene that sticks out for me the most, the one where I knew this probably wasn’t the book for me, was when Ari was in the hospital and Dante brought him books – The Grapes of Wrath and War & Peace. I understand Dante’s instinct to pick these books, he’d grown up in a super literary, academic family. I could actually maybe even believe that Ari would give these books a try, but I didn’t believe that he and his dad would each pick a book and then devour them at exactly the same speed and get through these long, heavy books in like a couple weeks. Ari wasn’t a reader. We wasn’t that type of character. And suddenly he does this, but it’s the only time it occurs in the book. It felt like literary snobbery. If this book is supposed to be all about the poetry of life, wouldn’t that have made more sense? Bring him poetry? Or at least have him reflect on the books. It just felt so forced to place it the book the way it was.

This feeling struck me again at the end of the book when Ari confronts the boy who was with Dante when he was beaten. Again, it just felt a little off. I can’t really explain why, but it did. Ari’s anger doesn’t feel authentic. It’s absolutely justified, but I don’t believe the scene. It, like the novel as a whole, felt a little heavy handed with its message. They’re discovering the secrets of the universe, and Ari points that out every time he discovers one. It’s a little look at me, look at me. It overshadows the things that could have made this novel work.

I also feel like there was a big missed opportunity in the book. Ari spends so much of his time fretting about his place in his family. The fact that he’s so much younger than his siblings. The fact that he’s always felt like a bit of a mistake. He feels like this alienates him from his siblings and parents. So, when Dante’s mother gets pregnant, this would have been a prime opportunity for him to address his issue. These parents he clearly respects are going to be doing exactly what his parents did. He can obviously talk to Dante’s mother more easily than he can to his own, so why not ask her? Ask her what having a child that much later means. What that child’s purpose/place is in their family. How they plan to integrate this new addition into an established unit. It could have given him great peace of mind. It might have given him the turning point I needed to make me believe he’d experienced any growth other than aging. But so much time is spend on his brother, and then the revelation that his brother killed a transgender female, that that whole part of the novel becomes a little trite.

I wish I could find more substance in why the book felt off to me, but I can’t. That might seem a little strange since I’ve just listed a number of things, but there’s nothing really ‘wrong’ with the novel. Lots of people will probably/already love it. Those people are just not me. I read it in two days, simply so I didn’t have to keep doing it later. I knew if I put it down, I’d have a hard time picking it back up again. I have a hard time writing these kinds of reviews. I hate feeling all wishy washy about a novel. I kind of wish I’d found something in it to hate. That would have been easier for me. I don’t know the books relation to the author’s life, but every story written is personal to the author. No one wants to know that there story flopped with a reader, especially when the reader can’t explain why. It just felt a bit pretentious from the title to the conclusion. Honestly, if not for the book club, the title alone would have stopped me from picking it up. But I was pretty much the only one in the group that was this far on the negative side of the book. Not everyone loved it, but a couple did. This is just one of those books that’s not for everyone. You’ll just have to read it to see if it’s for you.

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