Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s YA novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is, simply, a beautiful book. It’s also a beautifully simple book. YA Guy admires the heck out of writers who can express so much in such straightforward, clean prose; I tend toward the baroque and the extravagant, and I sometimes feel I say less with more. But not Sáenz.
The story he tells is classic coming-of-age material: two Mexican-American teenagers, Aristotle (the brooding narrator) and Dante (his chatty best friend), learn about life and love during several momentous summers, both together and apart. Aristotle is dealing with lots of demons: a father who won’t talk about his traumatic experience in Vietnam, an older brother who’s imprisoned and whom the family never mentions, a near-deadly accident that turns him into a reluctant hero. Dante seems to have things much easier: openly loving parents, artistic talent, an easy manner of being around others. But Dante has his own painful secret, and it’s one only Aristotle knows.
I won’t tell you all the twists and turns in the book; you’ll love discovering them for yourself. And you’ll also love Sáenz’s prose, which offers pearls like this on practically every page:
The problem with my life was it was someone else’s idea.
Words were different when they lived inside of you.
I sometimes think that I don’t let myself know what I’m really thinking about.
Do you know what dead skin looks like when they take off a cast? That was my life, all that dead skin.
For a few minutes I wished that Dante and I lived in the universe of boys instead of the universe of almost-men.
I decided that maybe we left each other alone too much. Leaving each other alone was killing us.
I think my mother and father had decided that there were too many secrets in the world.
If I have any reservation about Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, it has to do with the book’s conclusion, which I felt moved too fast and provided too pat a resolution to Aristotle’s crisis. But overall, if you’re looking for a book that explores the painful process of growing to manhood, Aristotle and Dante is one of the finest I’ve read in a long time.