The narrator of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s recent young adult novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover theSecrets of the Universe, is Aristotle (Ari) Mendoza, an adult looking back on his teen years in El Paso, Texas in the late 1980s. Yet Sáenz’s writing style is so immediate in its realistic dialogue and the honesty of Ari’s thoughts, that it feels as if Ari is speaking to us as a teen in the present moment. For this and many other reasons, it is clear why this novel is a 2013 Printz Honor Book. Printz Honors are awarded annually by the Young Adult Library Services Association to a few select books which exemplify “literary excellence in young adult literature”.
As the novel starts, Ari, a fifteen-year-old, is bored. Summer vacation has just started and he has nothing planned, no friends to hang out with. Despite the fact that he can’t swim, he decides to go to the community pool to cool off. There he meets Dante Quintana, also a fifteen year-old Mexican-American boy, who offers to teach him how to swim. From this meeting, a strong friendship -- a kinship really -- develops between the two.
Dante was also previously friendless, but unlike Ari, he has confidence in himself, knows himself, including the fact that he is gay. In contrast, Ari feels that he doesn’t understand himself well at all, nor the members of his immediate family. Ari just knows that he often feels different to others. He has a feeling that this is somehow connected to the facts that his Vietnam War veteran father often seems distant and that his incarcerated older brother is never discussed by either of his parents.
The novel is about Ari’s process of self-discovery. But Sáenz lets us in on this slowly, naturally, in a way that is completely unforced. Sáenz simply relates the events that happen in one year of Ari’s life, through Ari’s eyes. Ari does not truly begin to consider what his own sexual orientation may be until the final chapters of the novel -- but this timing feels right for a character like Ari, as he has had to work hard to find certain things that he had previously hidden from himself. It is rare that a book is written in an easy-to-understand, highly readable style and is also so insightful about human nature – this is one of those books. I very highly recommend this novel to anyone who is a teen or who remembers what it was like to be one, trying to find yourself in uncharted territory.