Book Scene: 'Aristotle and Dante' make a connection

The first time I picked up “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,” I almost immediately put it back down after realizing it was set in the late 1980s.

After admitting to myself that I was being judgmental and shallow to automatically reject what I feared to be a nostalgia novel, and after procrastinating for a couple of weeks, I picked it back up. And then I finished it in one sitting.

Upon completing the novel, I regretted that I didn’t read this book the second I got my hands on it. I was livid for not reading the novel the day it was released, disregarding the fact that I had no idea of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s book back then.

Put simply, I loved it.

Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza is an angry kid. He’s angry that his parents refuse to talk about his brother, he’s angry that he feels disconnected from everybody, and he carries that anger silently inside of himself in a way that keeps most people well away. Until he meets Dante Quintana, an earnest, lovable know-it-all who offers to teach Ari to swim and cements himself as his best, and only, friend.

Over the course of a summer, the two while away their time people-watching on public transit, inventing games to destroy their shoes and coming to the aid of stray birds. That is, until a bird rescue gone wrong lands Ari in the hospital with two broken legs.

The rest of the novel follows Ari through his recovery and the school year and summer that follows. We watch him navigate his relationship with his parents while trying to confront a long-held family secret and his suddenly confusing connection with Dante.

The writing style is, at times, wistful and poetic but somehow suits the heavier plot points, providing gravity without allowing things to become devastating.

Sáenz offers some refreshing takes in Aristotle and Dante that I long for in more novels. Ari and Dante, and their families, are shown genuinely trying to understand each other better and that alone made this one of the most emotionally satisfying books I’ve ever read.

Beyond the exploration of connection that, I feel, is the main theme in the book, Sáenz also addresses the difficulties of navigating a Chicano identity and manages to deliver one of the most heartfelt love stories I’ve seen in print.

“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” won the Lambda Literary Award, Stonewall Book Award, Pura Belpre Narrative Medal and Michael L. Printz Award honor. So, you know, I’m not being biased when I say it’s an excellent read.

• “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz was published by Simon & Schuster for Young Readers in 2012. It retails for $14.99.

• Morgan Pualani works for Inklings Bookshop. She and other Inklings staffers review books in this space every week.

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