Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was a moving and wonderful read.
Split into six sections, it tells the tale of two young boys, Aristotle and Dante, who meet on the summer before they turn sixteen. Aristotle can’t swim, he suffers with the lies of his family, the impending doom of adult-hood and the memory that his brother is no longer mentioned in the house, or by anyone for that matter. Dante on the other hand, is self-assured and confident, he knows who he is and loves poetry, art and things to do with the literary world. Seemingly opposites they form a special bond, first over swimming and to Aristotle who doesn’t have many friends, he thinks Dante will forget about him.
But he doesn’t.
Over the summer, they form a friendship and Ari, as he prefers to be called, learns what it is liked to be wanted and appreciated from someone of his own age. Both of them come from Mexican families and while they try to navigate through this thing called life, they also discover who they are as people. Dante discovers that he is gay, that he wants to explore the unknown – parties, girls, boys, alcohol, drugs – but once he has, he finds it isolating and lonely. On his year, away from Ari and their home town, he enjoys the lifestyle of other American teenagers, only to come home when he has turned sixteen, and being around Ari is far better. Despite the appeal of rebelling, he prefers the natural, the grounded, the poetic and safe, away from a life of craziness.
And that is Ari.
Through his ups and downs, Ari comes to terms with who he is too. He saves Dante’s life and cannot allow himself to accept why. Their friendship is more than that. It is something intangible, so much so that it withstands the distance of time, place and youth. In saving Dante’s life, Ari lands himself in hospital and their friendship is strained. Ari is angry at everything – at his family who do not speak about the past, at himself for the way he felt, at Dante because of how grounded he is and how good he was.
A year passes and Ari is back to normal, at least physically. He grows up. He works out, he gets a job, he goes to a party, he makes friends, he learns to drive and he gets a truck. He sends letters to Dante when he can, though it’s not much. Dante tells him that he’s gay, that he has kissed girls and while, that was nice, he’d much rather be kissing boys. They’re both sixteen now, nearly at that point of being men and yet Ari is still overshadowed by his father’s silence and his mother’s need for him to be perfect. The pressure is too much.
He is tense and vulnerable. Unlike Dante who is able to use his words, Ari was brought up in a household where nothing was said and if it was, it was through signs or gestures. He feels the pressure of his mother’s success and his father’s time in the war, the stories he won’t tell and the shadow that his brother has left in the household. Everything comes to a head after Dante comes back and they share a kiss, which Ari says ‘did nothing’ for him. At a funeral, Ari discovers that his late aunt lived with a woman for many years, they were lovers. He learns the truth about his aunt, about the wonderful person she was and how much his parents loved her. He learns that as a child he spent a lot of time with her, while his brother was sentenced and his mother had a breakdown.
Finally, after years of not talking, he discovers the secrets of his universe, of his past, of his father’s time at war, of his mother’s struggles with Bernardo, his older brother. And finally, while he finds himself, Dante tries to move on from Ari, who he is falling in love with. Ari promises to always stay by Dante no matter what, unlike his boyfriend, Daniel, who left him for dead as some punks beat him up because he was gay.
That is point where everything comes out and Dante’s parents, both of them, loving, find out that their son is gay. His parents are welcoming and baffled as to why Dante wouldn’t tell them, they love him unconditionally and find nothing wrong with their son’s sexuality. Relieved, he and Ari, though having now known the secrets of their family, grow apart. Dante is still with Daniel, Ari is jealous or at least it seems that way. He is about to turn seventeen and he still feels as though he was barely holding on, despite knowing what he had always wanted to know – what happened to his brother and what his father did in the war.
His problem, is that he hasn’t let out the very thing that he felt when he first saw Dante. Love. And in the end, he finally does. In the end, Ari and Dante share their first proper kiss, under the stars, both with open, willing hearts.