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The mysteries of the world and of people in “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe”

It was the title of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe that drew me to the book. I’m a massive fan of Dante, the major Italian poet of the Late Middle Ages, and of Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher and scientist. So everything about the title appealed to me — the names Dante, Aristotle, and the idea of uncovering the secrets of the world. And I’m so glad it did.

This is lyrical novel about family, friendship and love from critically acclaimed author Benjamin Alire Sáenz. It features two totally different characters — a know-it-all who has an usual way of looking at the world and an angry teen who doesn’t understand the world or anyone in it. Even though it seems like they have nothing in common, they develop a special friendship. The kind of friendship that changes lives and lasts a lifetime.

It’s through this friendship that Ari and Dante learn the most important truths about themselves, the world and the kind of people they want to be.

Dante can swim. Ari can’t. Dante is articulate and self-assured. Ari has a hard time with words and suffers from self-doubt. Dante gets lost in poetry and art. Ari gets lost in thoughts of his older brother who is in prison. Dante is fair skinned. Ari’s features are much darker. It seems that a boy like Dante, with his open and unique perspective on life, would be the last person to break down the walls that Ari has built around himself.

But against all odds, when Ari and Dante meet, they develop a special bond that will teach them the most important truths of their lives, and help define the people they want to be. But there are big hurdles in their way, and only by believing in each other―and the power of their friendship―can Ari and Dante emerge stronger on the other side.

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is the winner of the Stonewall Book Award (2013), Printz Honor (2013), YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults top ten (2013) and Pura Belpre Author Award (2013). This novel is a smart, intelligent, engaging coming-of-age story and a deep, thoughtful exploration of identity and sexuality.

But what I love most about it is it’s simplicity. And the novel’s deeper message is no different. Through the boys lives and experiences, I feel as though Sáenz’s message in his story is that people are not simple, and life is not simple.

The message perfects fits the story in the age of the boys through it. As they grow through life and try to discover who they are, they’re also discovering the world.

The thing is, it’s — again — the simple things that Ari and Dante discover about life that appear to be the most profound. Much like most of us at one point or another.

Here are but a few of my favourite discoveries:

“Another secret of the universe: Sometimes pain was like a storm that came out of nowhere. The clearest summer could end in a downpour. Could end in lightning and thunder.”
— Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

“To be careful with people and with words was a rare and beautiful thing.”
— Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

“I don’t always have to understand the people I love.”
— Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

“Scars. A sign that you had been hurt. A sign that you had healed.”
— Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

“One of the secrets of the universe was that our instincts were sometimes stronger than our minds.”
— Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

“I decided that maybe we left each other alone too much. Leaving each other alone was killing us.”
— Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

“Did anybody ever tell you that you weren’t normal?”
“Is that something I should aspire to?”
— Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Sáenz just has this way of knocking us off our feet with the simplest of phrases. These are all simple observations, but as people we rarely give them much thought. I mean think about it — when you felt like the thing between you and the person you loved was growing distant, would you think to yourself, “we’re leaving each other alone too much, that’s what’s killing us.” No, most people would notice the distance and retreat further.

Noticing something and acknowledging something are two totally different things. That’s what Sáenz is really telling us in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.

Near the end of his novel, Sáenz writes:

“This was what was wrong with me. All this time I had been trying to figure out the secrets of the universe, the secrets of my own body, of my own heart. All of the answers had always been so close and yet I’d always fought them without even knowing it. From the minute I’d met Dante, I had fallen in love with him. I just didn’t let myself know it, think it, feel it. My father was right. And it was true what my mother said. We all fight our own private wars.”
— Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

This is a powerful novel, and anyone who doesn’t read it is missing out on one of the purest, thoughtful stories in the universe.

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