Title: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2012
Aristotle is a loner. He tends to be quiet and keeps to himself. He doesn't really have any friends, until he meets Dante. Dante is everything Ari is not. He's open, talkative, and sees the beauty all around him. He's not afraid to talk about things that may be uncomfortable for others, like Ari. Despite their differences, they're friends. Best friends. But friendship isn't always cut and dry, and life isn't always simple.
This is a story that focuses on friendship, growing up, and what it means to be an adult, to be a man instead of a boy. Sáenz's prose is short and to the point, but it cuts to the heart of a matter even when Ari, our narrator, isn't sure what he thinks. That, for me, is one of the most endearing things in this entire book. Ari's unsureness, and his quietness. He speaks only when he knows exactly what he wants to say, and is completely honest and open to the reader in all things, even if he won't say them out loud.
This isn't the kind of story where plot is central. Very few major events take place. This is a book driven by character, and it's hard not to like the characters we come to know. Of course there is Ari, who I just love, and Dante, the dreamer. But there are also their parents. Dante's father is an outgoing, intelligent, likable man who believes the best about everyone, and his mother is quiet but firm, an observer. Ari's father is silent more than quiet, a survivor of the Vietnam War who has his own demons to contend with. Ari's relationship with his father really grows through the course of the book; they are very much alike in that they keep things to themselves, but as the book progresses we see them open up to each other. Ari gets along well with his mother, who urges him to talk to her about his life, yet keeps secrets that are too painful for her to bear about family history. The more I think about it, the more I'm realizing another major theme in this book is silence and its effects.
Of course, I can't review this book without mentioning Dante's openness about his realization that he's gay, and that he is strongly attracted to Ari. This of course confuses Ari, who can't bring himself to believe he might share those feelings. The novel goes on to explore the nature of love, and what it means for each character. Because as Ari says, people can love in different ways. Their relationship is handled delicately and without too much real conflict, but it seems so realistic, and that's another reason that sets it apart for me. I think the tone Sáenz struck is rare and beautiful.
What really truly makes this book memorable for me, though, is the triumph, hope, and joy I felt after finishing. It takes a lot for a book to do that to me, but this one accomplished that. Truly it was a wonderful read, and I'm thinking the Printz committee this year really knew what they were doing since I've liked both the books I've read that won this year. I'd also like to point out that this book was the winner of both the Stonewall Award and the Pura Belpre Award.
Disclosure: I got a copy of this book from the library.