Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz | I think I’ve missed something here

OVERALL: ★★★/5 

(Goodreads summary here.) 

I should preface this by saying that I really rushed through this book. My loan for it was going to be over in like 3 days when I finally got around to it, and then right after I started, I got off the waitlist for Kingdom of Ash (which I’m putting off starting to write this which is stressful). I was lucky that’s it’s a relatively quick read in general, but I think I might’ve liked it more if I hadn’t sped through the whole thing. 

That being said, I was a little underwhelmed by this book. I know a lot of people really love it, but I just found myself wondering why the whole time. Sure, it had its moments. But for the most part, I was waiting for something exciting to happen that never did. None of it really stuck with me, and I almost decided to DNF it. I’m almost disappointed I didn’t put it down. I never really got into it, and I feel like I didn’t really get anything out of it. The more I think about it, the more it seems like it just isn’t the book for me. 

I think my biggest problem with this book was the writing style. I found it to be way too much tell and not nearly enough show in terms of description and feelings. Sure, it makes Ari seem more like a real teenager who is writing, but I also find that it doesn’t make it very compelling to read, which is, y’know, kind of important when it’s a book. Also, I thought that the dialogue was kind of funky. Not in terms of how the characters spoke per say, but just that I felt like there were large chunks of dialogue followed by large chunks of narration. I didn’t find it to be an equal or appealing balance, and I would’ve rather had the narration worked in with the dialogue. On that note, it seemed to me like Sáenz is afraid of dialogue tags? Like buddy, how hard is it to follow a line with “He said”? I kept getting lost in who was meant to be saying what, and it meant that characters used each other’s names in dialogue more often than a person does in real life. I mean, when I’m conversing with someone, I don’t say their name every 4 sentences as if they need reminding of who they are or as if I’ve forgotten who I’m talking to, but that’s what it felt like throughout this book. Some of it may be that Sáenz is hoping that the reader can infer who is saying what based on what is being said, and I can appreciate that, I just don’t think it was done exceptionally well or was really necessary for this book. 

Another thing I’m not quite sure I understood as the novel progressed was how …  unreal(?) both Ari and Dante felt. To me, they just seemed like caricatures of teenagers. Ari seemed to suppress his feelings more than anyone I’ve ever met (and that’s coming from someone who ignores feelings at all costs), and Dante just seemed like a puppy personified. While I really liked Ari’s character arc, I didn’t find that Dante changed all too much. I know he’s not the protagonist, but he’s certainly not a side character. And as someone who likes to see growth in every character whenever possible, I was disappointed that I didn’t see Dante learn anything as the story progressed. I do think he had a lot of potential for growth, but we don’t see any of it. Sure, I know they’re still young and they’re still growing, but if we get to see Ari change, why can’t we see the same in Dante? 

I will say that the family dynamics in this book really saved it for me. Although I didn’t feel as though Ari and Dante were entirely real, their families did. Families are weird and diverse and no two are the same, so I liked that we got to see two similar yet different experiences. I think all too often, in YA lit especially, it always comes down to one dysfunctional family meeting a seemingly perfect one, but the Mendozas and the Quintanas were both wonderful, loving families who cared for their sons. If I had one complaint in this department, it is that the Quintanas felt just a little too perfect, but, like I said, families are wildly diverse, and I’m not going to say that families like that can’t or don’t exist. I think I just would’ve liked to see something less white picket fence with them. 

Maybe this is just me not entirely understanding the book, but I do wish we had seen a little bit more about Ari and Dante’s experiences as minorities. I guess I just didn’t see the full development of the two of them coming into their ethnic identity for as often as it was mentioned. I can totally understand that this isn’t really what the book is about, but I also felt like it was mentioned a bit too much to not have played a bigger role than it did. Again, I can also appreciate that maybe they haven’t fully figured out what their identities mean to them, but I did expect to see more of it. I mean, the Wiki page for it reads that it follows Ari and Dante’s “struggles with racial and ethnic identity, sexuality, and family relationships,” and I guess I just didn’t see the struggle with racial and ethnic identity the way I did their sexuality and family relationships. Maybe it’s just that I missed its prominence in my hasty reading or that I’m white and so can’t understand it fully so I just didn’t see it, but I found myself wanting to learn more about what Ari and Dante’s identity meant to them. 

My last thought is a bit of a spoiler, so skip down to the break if you don’t want to see it! 

Last chance if you don’t want the spoiler! Okay, so here it is: I think it’s absolutely bizarre that Ari’s parents had to sit him down and be like, “look, you’re not straight and in love with Dante.” Like??? Does that happen in real life? Someone please tell me. I would be mortified if my parents sat me down and said, “We think you’re ace.” That’s the other thing! They don’t even say “we think!” They just tell him! Can you imagine that happening in real life and the kid not actually feeling that way? I totally understand denial and unconscious repression, but I just don’t think that’s the kind of thing you can just tell someone “You’re in romantically in love with your best friend” and have them suddenly realize it’s true. I don’t know, again, this might just be me not getting it since it’s obviously not my experience, but I just really question if it’s at all realistic. 

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All in all, I think I just missed something about this book. Maybe the more I think about it, the more I’ll appreciate it, but, right now, it’s not the book for me. I’m glad I finished it as quickly as I did, because Kingdom of Ash is calling to inevitably break my heart (sorry not sorry). 

Have you read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe? What did you think? Are there other books you think you missed something with? 

Keep reading, 

Francesca M. Healy (1)

 

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