The cover of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz is covered with awards, and I’ve been hearing rave reviews of this novel ever since it was published in 2012. I finally had a chance to read this coming-of-age novel about friendship, sexual identity, and figuring out who you are.
Aristotle and Dante are both teen Mexican-American boys living in El Paso, Texas, in 1987, both named after long-dead philosophers and both sort of loners without any close friends. That’s where the similarities end, though. They meet one day at the local pool, when Dante, an accomplished swimmer, offers to teach Aristotle – who can only float – how to swim.
Dante is lightness and mirth, always laughing and happy, while Aristotle is often dark and moody. But the boys hit it off from their first conversation, immediately starting to laugh together over their shared strange names. Aristotle meets Dante’s parents and adores them, especially his father, who is open and talkative, welcoming Aristotle warmly. His own father hasn’t been the same since he returned from Vietnam, rarely speaking and often angry, and neither of his parents will talk about his older brother, who is in prison.
The two boys spend an idyllic summer together, swimming, making up silly games, and experiencing what it means to have a best friend for the first time in their lives. Dante is the one person who can bring Ari out of his dark moods, who can get him to talk, who can make him laugh. Their friendship even helps Ari to begin to open up with his family. Before the summer ends, though, tragedy strikes, and their friendship hits some serious obstacles that complicate their easy relationship.
This warm, moving, often funny novel is compulsively readable, as the easy-going, funny banter between the two friends turns into a deep bond. Although it delves deep into the mysteries of friendship, it also explores family, in all of its difficult and dysfunctional guises. Together, though in different ways, the two boys try to figure out who they are and what they want out of life, in a classic coming-of-age story, as they each encounter significant challenges. Aren’t such struggles always easier with a best friend by your side?
359 pages, Simon & Schuster