I read some very positive reviews of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz and since it had a theme similar to the novel I am writing (young men in their late teens dealing with angst and same-sex attraction), I decided to check it out. Published in 2012 and winner of several awards, this is the story of two Mexican-American boys with very different personalities and interests who are living in El Paso, TX in the 1980’s. Aristotle or Ari as he calls himself is an introverted, lonely kid whose older brother is in prison for reasons that have never been explained to him. Dante is friendly and outgoing, an only child, loves art and reading and has a wonderful relationship with both his parents. The two meet one day at a neighborhood pool where Dante offers to teach Ari how to swim. They quickly become close friends.
This book was not bad but also disappointed me after all the hype I read about it. For starters, I didn’t like the author’s overuse of short choppy sentences – it reminded me of Hemingway, a comparison I’m sure the author would love. Coming from me though that is definitely not a compliment. As a side note, I read The Sun Also Rises about a year ago and hated it. For any Hemingway fans out there sorry…I regard Hemingway as the most overrated twentieth century author.
Getting back to this book, I also found the dialogue to be incredibly dumb and annoying; the two main characters are supposed to both be smart teenagers and yet their conversations sounded more like high school drop-outs on a fairly consistent basis. I also found it a bit incredulous that the story takes place in the 1980’s and somehow any mention or concern about AIDS is never addressed even though anyone who lived through that decade knows AIDS was terrorizing the human psyche at the time. Granted this is not a book where sexual intimacy plays a big role but it still strikes me as odd that no one in the story, especially the parents, ever raises this as a concern. Adding to the book’s lack of realism, the two main characters live in El Paso, TX and are from Mexican American families and the reader is supposed to believe that both sets of parents are perfectly ok with their sons’ attraction to members of the same-sex. I’m sure then and now such families exist but having two sets of parents be so cutesy homo-supportive in a culture that even almost thirty years after the story takes place is pretty hostile to the LGBT community seems a stretch at best.
On the plus side I thought the author had a good story to tell. I just don’t feel he did it in a very effective or interesting way. Perhaps because the target audience was YA, the author wrote the book the way he did. If his goal was to make LGBT teenage readers feel good about themselves then perhaps he succeeded. In my mind there are far better books with a gay sub-text to them out there that are geared to the YA audience. Alex Sanchez’ Rainbow Boys and Don’t Let Me Go by J.H. Trumble are just two examples.
To sum it all up, not a terrible book but nothing special in my mind, especially considering some of the really great works I have read this year. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d rate it 5.5. I’ll probably pass on any future books by the author.