Monday, 23 January 2017

#CBR9 Book 3: "Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe" by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Page count: 368 pages
Audio book length: 7 hrs 29 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

Aristotle "Ari" is a conflicted teenager growing up in El Paso in the late 1980s. He's sixteen and a loner, but doesn't really mind his lack of friends. He's very close to his mother, whose a high school teacher (not at Ari's school), but wishes he could talk to his dad, a Vietnam vet about, well, anything really. The youngest of his family, Ari's twin sisters are much older than him and his brother is in prison, never spoken about by anyone in the family. There are no pictures, his name is never mentioned, and Ari can't help but wonder about him constantly.

The summer when he's sixteen, Ari makes his first real friend, Dante. They meet at the public pool, when Dante offers to teach him how to swim. Dante is pretty much Ari's polar opposite. He's outgoing and talkative, questioning everything. He's positive where Ari is melancholy. Yet the two boys connect. They spend pretty much the whole summer together, until a bad accident puts Ari in the hospital. Dante's family move to Chicago for a school year, but the boys keep in touch by writing letters.It's clear that both of the boys do more developing and figuring out of who they're becoming when they're apart.

When Dante and his parents move back to El Paso, he's worried that Ari will no longer be his friend. Dante has been experimenting with kissing while he was in Chicago and has pretty much figured out that he only wants to be kissing boys. He's worried that Ari won't be his best friend anymore. He's worried about telling his parents and disappointing them, because he's absolutely crazy about them. Can Ari and Dante's friendship survive these new realisations?

I'd heard about this book in several places. It was very favourably reviewed by several review sites I frequent, like The Book Smugglers and Forever Young Adult. I put it on my TBR list, and as is so often the case, more or less forgot about it. Then earlier this month, fellow Cannonballer JCoppercorn wrote another very positive review, and because I had been browsing Audible, I discovered that Lin-Manuel Miranda was the narrator of the audiobook. This pretty much made the book a must-buy and I've been very happily listening to it for the past week.

This book, you guys. It's so good! I've seen some complaints that the dialogue wasn't entirely realistic and that sixteen/seventeen-year-olds don't speak the way Dante and Aristotle do, but as a reader of a lot of YA fiction, I would say that this is more often the exception than the rule. Frankly, I teach fifteen/sixteen-year-olds and none of them, male or female, are even half as articulate as any fictional teen I've every come across in fiction.

Frankly, the close, extremely functional relationship these young men had with their parents was probably unrealistic too, but it added to my enjoyment of the book. Both Ari's and Dante's parents are pretty much the greatest, even though Ari's dad isn't exactly the most talkative or emotionally demonstrative of people. Dante's parents both more than make up for that, though, and I found myself being vaguely jealous of how great, understanding, supportive and insightful all these adults were. Way better than any of my parents during my coming of age, and my Mum was pretty super. Not that they always said or did the right thing. As mentioned already, Ari's father is rather distant and taciturn, still stoically dealing with the aftermath of his time in Vietnam, even a decade and a half later. Neither of Ari's parents (or his sisters) will in any way acknowledge the existence of his older brother, who went to prison when Ari was four. Ari feels the lack of his brother deeply and cannot understand why his family won't ever tell him a thing about him.

The book is told from Ari's point of view and we only ever see Dante and the other characters through his eyes, with the exceptions of the letters Dante sends him while he lives in Chicago. Every so often, there are Ari's diary entries, but most of the story is just about a year and a half of his life, while he is growing up, changing and desperately trying to figure out who he is and what is going to become of him. Friendship is a new and occasionally difficult thing for Ari. Expressing his emotions and figuring out what he wants is even more so. He's frequently troubled by bad dreams, where his fear of being left behind by the men who mean something to him (his father, his brother and Dante) is painfully obvious.

It's clear that while Dante is much more outgoing and sociable than Ari, he hasn't really had a lot of close friends either. So both boys become the other's best friend, while still trying to figure out what that entails, as well as what becoming men is all about. Add to that the questions surrounding their identities as Mexican (Ari looks a lot more Mexican than Dante, both have parents who have become educated and don't necessarily fit into their traditional communities anymore) and in Dante's case, the questions surrounding his sexuality. While he's in Chicago, Dante clearly does his best to try to figure out exactly who and what he likes, while Ari reads his letters and feels uncomfortable about a lot of these things. Luckily, Dante's realisations about his sexuality doesn't get in the way of their continued friendship once he and his parents move back to El Paso.

This book made me laugh, and cry both happy and sad tears. It's such a lovely book and I'm glad I finally read it. The only reason I'm not giving it 5 stars is that it really does take Ari way too long to get over himself and figure out what matters to him in the end. When your parents have to sit you down and have a serious conversation with you before you wise up, it's gone a bit far. Again, not unrealistic, teenagers are really very clueless, but I still wish the book had continued on a little bit longer after it's current end point. The narration by Lin-Manuel Miranda is excellent (I hadn't expected anything else). Goodreads tells me that there will be a sequel at some future date (as of yet there is no release info) , and I cannot wait to find out what happens next with these lovely guys and their families.

Judging a book by its cover: I love pretty much everything about this cover, just as I love pretty much everything about the book. The font used for the title, the illustrations that look like someone has scribbled or doodled over much of it. Ari's red pickup truck and the lonely landscape that he enjoys so much. It's a really good cover and captures some of the feel of this book excellently.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.  

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad you added the bit about the cover at the end... that was the first thing that grabbed me when I started reading your review - that cover is stunning.

    I absolutely agree with your comment that YA dialogue is often more mature than the characters, but it sounds like it didn't ruin the book (as it sometimes does). This sounds like a gripping read - I'm glad you enjoyed it!