Benjamin Alire Sáenz – Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

This is not fantasy. It has become rare for me to read anything not at least related to the SFF genres, but after reading rave reviews, seeing all the glittery awards stickers on the book cover, and swooning over the cover in general, I had to get it anyway. I don’t regret reading this one bit and you should pick it up too!

aristotle and dante


Published by: Simon & Schuster, 2012
Ebook: 368 pages
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: One summer night I fell asleep, hoping the world would be different when I woke.

A lyrical novel about family and friendship from critically acclaimed author Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.


Ari, short for Aristotle, is angry and unhappy. He is a teenager who has no friends, and admitting that is not easy. One day, at the swimming pool, he meets Dante who is open and happy and can teach Ari how to swim. A friendship evolves, but it’s not the kind that only lasts a summer. You can’t forget Dante just because summer is over…

It’s easy to dive into this book because the writing style is just so clear. It makes you remember what it was like being a teenager, when you question everything, especially your own place in the world. Because of the great writing, I was hooked long enough to fall in love with the characters as well. I took a while to warm to Ari, but Dante was an immediate character crush. As different as these two boys may seem at first, it becomes clearer and clearer that they have a more things in common than they thought. And I swear I don’t just like them because they talk about books and art.

The plot starts as out as your average lonely boy spends a lonely summer and surprisingly makes a friend, but things really kick off when there is an accident. Not only does this leave the protagonists physically hurt, but it also opens up all sorts of side plots, about Ari’s parents, about his brother (who’s in prison), about Dante and Ari being separated because they go to different schools. It was that moment, when I realised Ari would have to be without Dante for a few months, that I realised how much I had come to love them, how much I wanted these two to always be together, to always be friends. Benjamin Alire Sáenz is sneaky like that. There I am, reading page after page of a beautiful friendship, thinking I’m distant from the plot, taking it in in an almost clinical way. And then the author threatens to separate these two boys and shatter the world I had come to love. That’s some great writing right there!

Ari’s relationship with his father was another strong point, and one that left me at the edge of tears. Ari’s father doesn’t say much, he has nightmares, he never talks about his time in the war, although it has clearly changed him as a person. While Ari desperately tries to have a father-son relationship (of any kind, really), his father just can’t open up. As the novel progresses, we learn just how hard Ari’s father tries and how difficult it is for him to be what Ari wants him to be. Theirs is a difficult relationship but none the less beautiful for it.

aristotle and dante

I make it sound as if this book is nothing but an examination of relationships – don’t let me fool you, there is plenty of plot! But it’s the relationships that show off just how damn good the writing is. Benjamin Alire Sáenz doesn’t tell his readers what the characters are feeling, he shows us. Through their actions, their choice of words, their emotions, we get to know them deeply and care for them. In stories about teenagers, the parents are usually conveniently absent. Not so here. Both Ari and Dante’s parents are a constant presence, and I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to hear Dante say that he loves them. They are wonderful people and their love for each other and for their son just oozes out of every scene.

When it becomes clear that Dante is in love with Ari, I was a mess of emotions. Because what if Ari didn’t love him back? At least not that way? Ari’s narration is much more telling than he might like. He has many things to be angry about. His silent father, not knowing anything about his brother, his lack of friends and direction in life – but he most definitely can’t be angry about having met Dante. That said, Ari being the narrator gives an intimate glimpse into his brain. We see the things he hides from others, from his parents, from Dante. But – whether because he spells it out or by omission – we also see the things he doesn’t let himself know, the things he denies himself. He may tell himself that he doesn’t want or need friends, but you can just tell that this is a lie he tells himself to make life more bearable. It made me love him all the more.

I have been rambling about this book for quite a while and I’m sorry for the lack of coherence. Take it as a sign of quality of the book. Because anything that can make me feel so wretched and so good within a matter of a few chapters can’t be bad. In fact, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is one of those books I’ll remember for a long time. It sticks with you, in all its beauty. Its quiet moments and its loud ones, the subverted tropes, the wonderful love story, the discovery that a messed-up family can still be the best place in the world, it’s too beautiful to put into words. Which is why I’ll stop here and urge you to read the book. There’s a reason it has a billion award stickers on its cover.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Truly excellent!


For reviews that are actually structured and make sense, check out these second opinions:

2 thoughts on “Benjamin Alire Sáenz – Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

  1. jazzfeathers says:

    This sounds like a very unique story. I think there are so many wonderful stories out there, but in today’s marketplace isn’t easy to find them. Thanks os much for sharing this 🙂


  2. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    Aw, this book made me happy. I had a few quibbles with it, but overall it just made me go “awwww” a lot. And there’s a sequel in the works! And Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of Hamilton, also loves this book, which makes me eeeeeven happier.


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