by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, 2012
There is always the risk when reading immensely popular books of your expectations exceeding the book’s reality. I was prepared for this to be the case when I finally got around to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, a much lauded book online and on BookTube for its depiction of a relationship between two teenage boys. Young adult novels positively depicting gay relationships are still something of a novelty, so we’re in a place where most books that do this, regardless of the quality of the writing, get a pass simply because they address a subject that is marginalized and, in some cultures, taboo. In some ways I believe Aristotle and Dante is getting that pass, but I was pleased to find that, in other ways, it is wholly deserving of the attention it has received.
Aristotle (Ari) Mendoza and Dante Quintana meet when Dante, a lifeguard at the local pool, offers to teach Ari how to swim. The two embark on a friendship equally filled with childish games, walks in the rain, traumatic events, life lessons, and confusing feelings as they grow into men. Spanning from the summer before Ari’s junior year to that before his senior year, the book is replete the sort of teenage angst that you’d expect from two boys struggling to discover who they are in this world.
Where I felt the book faltered was in the characters of Ari and Dante themselves. Dante, in particular, is incredibly sensitive – prone to crying at a moment’s notice, offering his parents kisses, and quick to show his emotional cards. I would be the last to say that boys can’t or shouldn’t be sensitive – Charlie’s sensitivity in The Perks of Being a Wallflower was perhaps that book’s best attribute, and his vulnerability felt real and strong – but here that attempt at extreme emotional awareness, unfortunately, reads a bit…twee. It’s not merely that I’ve never known anyone like Dante, but that I don’t buy him as a character. He reads as if he jumped off the screen of the latest Lifetime/ABC Family/Hallmark TV movie. Thankfully Ari is less of a sugar-coated version of a teenager, but the writing simply doesn’t allow either boy’s personality to shine through without us being told their direct thoughts and actions. There is little to discover or infer and I found the lack of nuance disappointing.
Where Aristotle and Dante shines, however, is in Alire Sáenz’s unflinching tackling of difficult and important subjects. This is not merely a homosexual romance story – in fact, I was pleased to find that much of the story does not revolve around romance – but one in which two people work to find their place in world that seems to already have written their roles for them. Ari is struggling with being the de facto only child in a family where his twin sisters are 12 years his senior and his 25-year-old brother is in prison. He feels the pressure to be everything his brother was not, even as his brother’s crime remains a family secret. Dante wrestles with what it means to be Mexican-American, feeling himself to be not of enough of either to claim a cultural identity. There are additional explorations of machismo, violence, PTSD, and class that Alire Sáenz brilliantly weaves into the narrative. I’ve never read anything that so deftly addresses these topics for a young audience.
So, while I was not enamored with the characters of Aristotle Mendoza and Dante Quintana, I can’t deny the importance of the book’s presence in young adult literature. I think it can be easy for us to forget that, as teenagers, we didn’t only struggle with finding out who would be our first kiss, our first relationship, our first sexual encounter. There’s so much more to many of us that goes ignored when romance is the easiest, cheapest way to hook readers. The fact that Alire Sáenz doesn’t go this route is deserving of our ovation.
[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read an LGBTQ+ romance novel, read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+.]