My first time immersing myself in a work by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
Sleepwalking through life. That’s what I feel like I’ve been doing since my dad passed away. Then I walked the aisles of Barnes and Noble a week ago. Plucked this book out of its forgotten corner of the shelf. I smiled at the art on the front cover, the paintbrush strokes and 1957 cherry red Chevy pickup with whitewall tires. Memories of my grandfather’s truck washed over me.
Ari and Dante. Two young Latino men aching to grow up and shake off the doldrums of high school. The story unfolds from Angel Aristotle Mendoza’s perspective, his narrative jarring and beautifully captivating. Intrinsic and hardened, Ari gradually shows his dreams. He wants to pull his father out of his post-war stasis, and better understand what makes his mother teach even the most ungrateful of kids. Most of all, he wants to break his family’s silence on his brother, Bernardo, who was sent to prison when Ari was only a child. Ari’s yearnings are powerful and force him into solidarity.
Until Dante Quintana dives in after him. Meeting one blistering summer day at the local pool, the two boys quickly bond as scrawny, high-pitched Dante teaches tough guy Ari how to swim. Taken off guard by Dante’s spry humor and love for sketching, Aristotle allows their growing friendship into his heart – the first step in catalyzing his self-discovery.
While simple in syntax, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is uplifted by Ari’s resoundingly authentic voice. He is wholehearted and complex, even as he fights against himself and seldom dares to own up to his feelings. Dante’s cheerfulness and compassion are matched only by his comfort with his sexuality. He is gay, and he loves Ari, and in more ways than he would like to admit, Ari is okay with that.
Ari and Dante struggle to accept each other. Their parents offer them wonderful insights, even as they – in particular, Ari’s parents – come to terms with their own broken dreams. Alire Sáenz deftly faces homophobia and family secrets with warm and candid insight. His two young men seem to have a place in a thousand different families. Ari and Dante grow, experiment, and find courage. Their legacy is young, but certainly eternal.
One Last Thought: