Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

This book graced a few banned books lists

By Caleb Calhoun|Powderly Library



To faithfully review a work of art by a creator one respects always seems like a monumental task. Writing one’s first genre-based review about a novel so lauded by critics and endowed with its own subtle power seems preposterous.

What exactly can I bring to the conversation that The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and just about every other reader down to the loneliest blogger have not already said?

But true stories told well inspire us to speak our own truth, drawing us into the conversation however reticent we may be. This book, despite being fiction, certainly earns the honorific of "true stories told well"

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz follows two teenage boys' relationships—to themselves, to their parents, to their peers, to their culture, and to each other—as seen through the eyes of the introverted and misanthropic teen Aristotle.

The book is set in El Paso, Texas, providing a quiet but consistent backdrop of the struggle of second-generation immigrants trying to assimilate into mainstream American society yet maintain their cultural heritage.

"It bothers you that you’re Mexican, doesn’t it?" Aristotle gently levels at Dante early on in the book.

This statement, which is more empathetic than accusatory, lays the foundation for how the protagonists will wrestle with important questions of identity, family, and culture throughout.

Aristotle and Dante is not a book of absolutes and answers. Instead, this is a modern Socratic parable, choosing not to cut the belly but to allow the reader to give birth to their own fully formed ideas.

Photo of the author, Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Sáenz' method of amoral questioning serves the readers and the characters as the story moves forward.

Readers and the characters can challenge their preconceptions and experiment with ideas and lessons that, if more directly put, might end in hand wringing and knee jerking rather than true understanding and acknowledgement.

Of course, none of that subtlety and craft would take us anywhere without such vivid and fully developed characters. While authors often overuse the trope of  "opposites attract" to expand the topical playing field, Sáenz' color wheel is not exhausted on the main characters.

Though the story focuses on Aristotle and Dante, characters tangential to the story, like Gina Navarro and Aunt Ophelia, are seen clearly even if in part.

Perhaps no character is more masterfully drawn than Ari’s father, Mr. Mendoza.

His heavy silence weighs on Ari, but Sáenz has no trouble making it clear that it weighs on Mr. Mendoza, too. Before long, the reader feels that weight. This fully formed but socially stunted man whose entire existence, with the exception of passing references to his dreams, is painted in shades of darkness.

Yet, as with the rest of the themes and characters in the book, Sáenz slow-plays Ari and Mr. Mendoza’s relationship, allowing both Ari and the reader to process Mr. Mendoza's current behavior and past actions that shape the present.

Ari’s relationship with his father exemplifies one of the main themes of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe—the theme of clear communication. Sáenz circles back to this repeatedly.

As a foil to the expressive Dante, Mr. Mendoza’s stark silence forces readers to reckon with the consequences of keeping quiet. Yet the consequences of vocalizing bring about their own reckonings.

We find Ari often wallowing in solitude—not opening the envelope with information about his long-lost brother, ignoring Dante’s calls, finding himself uncomfortable and angry by Dante’s willingness to be forthright—despite how hurtful his own father’s silence is toward him.

As the story progresses, we see Ari fill in the blanks of his father’s quietude by creating conversations in his own mind. Not surprisingly, this behavior leads to resentment.

"I tried to go with small talk," Ari tells us late in the book, "tried to pretend that I hadn’t had that imaginary conversation with him. Not that he knew what I’d said. But I knew. And I knew I meant to say those things even if I hadn’t."

Somehow, even as Ari begrudgingly accepts his father’s silence, he feels safest covered in his own silence, hiding from his feelings about himself and Dante. When Dante moves to Chicago, their relationship carries out over a series of letters.

This technique shifts the quality of the conversations from everyday events to more philosophical and social, which is pure genius.

Sáenz chooses to give up the quick hitting dialogue that he is so proficient at to reveal a deeper look at the psyche of two teenage boys discovering their bodies. Fittingly, this section of the novel becomes Dante’s story despite being narrated by Ari's voice.

Ari’s fear keeps him from writing as often as Dante does, cleverly replacing Ari’s beliefs and values with Dante’s. As Dante continues to be vulnerable in his letters, even without Ari responding, we see the terror and angst that drive Ari to hide from himself and others.

Typical topics for teenagers, like kissing, masturbation, and what gender someone is attracted to, lead Ari to shut down. The further he closes himself off to Dante (and, to a lesser extent, Dante’s parents), the more he finds himself pursuing ideas he does not fully believe.

When Dante’s family returns from Chicago, Dante ends up in a hospital bed because of his willingness to be transparent about who he is. This sets the stage for Aristotle to choose between his family history, cultural mores, and past beliefs; or the chance at current and future happiness.

As the end draws near, revelations begin to come. However, as happens often in real life, by the time the revelations do come, they are less about today’s news and more about the steps that happened in between.

Beautifully written, this book can resonate with any reader regardless of race, age or sexual orientation.

But for those of us who have struggled with our own demons about love, gender, sex, and race, this work of fiction is a powerful and moving account of self-discovery and self-love.

Aristotle reminds us early in the novel, "Some boys live by different rules."

The response, though not explicitly written, is the whole of this book.

Sáenz tells readers in letters painted neon pink and twenty feet high: "That’s ok. You are ok."

Stop by the Powderly Branch Library or your local Birmingham Public Library location to request a copy of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.

Our blog today is by Caleb Calhoun, an avid reader, author, and poet. He lives in Birmingham, AL with his partner and their newly rescued Beveron rabbit, Jayber Crow, and works for the Birmingham Public Library at the Powderly Branch.

If you would like to get in touch, you can reach him via email at Caleb.Calhoun@COBPL.org.

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