“Why do we smile? Why do we laugh? Why do we feel alone? Why are we sad and confused? Why do we read poetry? Why do we cry when we see a painting? Why is there a riot in the heart when we love? Why do we feel shame? What is that thing in the pit of your stomach called desire?”
If tears could build a stairway and memories a lane, you might discover the universe's secrets under the crippling fear of darkness that isn't conspicuous to the eyes. Maybe they're hiding to obscure the profundity of existence which unveils its beauty under the warm sunshine of the dawn. Indeed the universe is settling and unsettling within, with a candid yet discreet flow of emotions. It often misleads the vision, obfuscating the line between virtue and reality, leaving the mind perplexed. Well, one could always discover the secrets of the universe by rummaging the core of self without looking into the reflection of eyes because sometimes they don't reveal the truth; they lie.
"The summer sun was not meant for boys like me. Boys like me belong to the rain."
Set during a high school summer, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe untangle the rhapsodic journey of two teenagers who find solace in each other's composure as they struggle to comprehend their identities amid the bustling pandemonium of the world. Striking an unlikely camaraderie, Ari finds himself complementing Dante's fascinating and philosophical nature as he attempts to fit into the surrounding he inhabits. He never shared a sense of belonging with the world. Neither he was comfortable under the flesh he was living in. Residing with a family that kept their secrets locked up, understanding the world has never been simple for Ari. The symbolic depiction of his brother, about whom no one has spoken since his incarceration, accentuated Ari's incapability to make sympathetic connections with his family or even feel much of anything except a simmering, inarticulate rage. Lacking a true male role figure in his life, Ari has always felt separated, particularly from the world of boys and their interests.
"Somehow, I'd hoped this would be the summer that I would discover that I was alive. the world my mom and dad said was out there waiting for me. That world doesn't exist."
Ari's mother is quite complicated and fragile. Initially, she was depicted as a stringent parent trying to curb Ari's freedom by imposing her strictness. Some intriguing quotations were meant to tickle our inner emos–“The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea.” Although Ari sometimes finds her annoying, he admires his mother's unconditional love and shares a bond of true friendship. On the other hand, Ari's father was a silent and reserved man with gruesome scars haunting him now and then–"Sometimes I think my father has all these scars. In his heart. In his head. All over." These scars were not often noticed, as most people did not even bother to take a look at and understand the meaning behind them. Dwelling on a past too traumatic to talk about, he erected a wall between himself and his family that restricted the glimpses of his life. Ari became distant, withdrawn and broody, caged in his grim and loud thoughts while fighting the demons in his restless mind. Ari had no outlet for his emotions piling up for years, leaving him disturbed and frustrated. Despite his crumbling connection with his family, some resonating moments came from Ari's relationship with his parents, opening new perspectives and widening the horizon for parenthood. However, to bring a change in his monotonous life, he ends up spending his summer days at the local swimming pool, despite not knowing how to swim. His life turns when Dante Quintana walks in, offering him swimming lessons. Little do they know, they are the keys to setting the other free. Soon their friendship blossomed into an ardent love story–true to life, true to the soul.
"I love swimming," he said again. He was quiet for a little while. And then he said, "I love swimming – and you." I didn’t say anything. "Swimming and you, Ari. Those are the things I love the most."
Dante is unafraid and extroverted by nature. He craved art and literature that served as a looking glass to the world he was still processing. Dante grows more comfortable in his skin–transparency he allows his best friend to see in every aspect of his life. There’s a sense of sincerity and selfless dedication in every word in his letters to Ari, where he explores hushed topics of his deep fantasies of kissing boys and even escapism with drugs. His ability to enact and manifest his visceral thought and feeling becomes more glaring, particularly after life-changing events. Ari, on the other hand, strives to acknowledge and understand the changing emotions that keep him tangled in the cobweb of uncertainty. While Dante revels in his passions, Ari hides from them as he scuffles to confront himself about his preoccupied desires or summon the courage to finally urge his family for the answers that he always craved.
"And it seemed to me that Dante’s face was a world without any darkness. Wow, a world without darkness. How beautiful was that?”
Ari and Dante are both complex characters, relatable in many ways with a depth to them that is not often afforded to teenagers. Their struggles are dealt with with utmost compassion, and their desire to “write their own story” is taken seriously. Both parents are caring, supportive and constantly trying to understand their kids better. Dante’s parents’ unconditional love and support for him when he admits he “likes kissing boys” is not something many queer kids expect or experience when they come out to their families. Despite a lot of devastating and heartbreaking themes and incidents, this story is, at its core, an uplifting, queer, coming of age tale that is guaranteed to melt even the iciest of hearts.
Through the book, we contemplate Aristotle battling to put a leash on his inner demons. We see him proceeding to tussle with loneliness that overpowers and deprives him of his identity. He endeavors to survive the weight of his outrage and the raging curiosity of his convicted brother's estrangement. The trauma of not finding solace in his own skin is heightened by his impulse to wrestle with the vigor of emotions, sexuality, thriving sufferings and self-imposed solitude. Ari is most like the author in the sense that he seemed like a happy guy when in fact, he was miserable and kept waiting for his life to flip upside down for better and worse. Having gone through a very long and painful healing process of coming to terms with his sexuality, Benjamin started to write “Ari”, and “Dante” soon followed. According to him, Ari and Dante are both like him, “they are the young men that I wanted to be–and never was.” The flow of the narration and the aesthetics of writing are surreal. Sometimes the shortest sentence engulfed the reader with the feeling of love for the book. Every description of Dante's laugh, every time the boys would call each other weird, every moment they spent together – it felt like reality, experiencing their friendship and their bond.
“Maybe we just lived between hurting and healing.”
Pain is a constant companion that follows them on every step of their journey as the boys come to terms with their identities and confront internalized homophobia and feelings of inadequacy. Despite all this, the comfort to the eyes was to witness that their friendship was able to survive every blow of fate that was hurled their way. Their friendship and always those little, to some people rather insignificant moments, touched the soul and automatically warmed the heart of readers. With writing that sings, Benjamin Alire Saénz dives deep into the chaotic relationships we have with those closest to us. The idea of becoming ‘air’–something and nothing at the same time, the persistent need to discover the universe in search of a world without darkness, is something that will surely resonate with us. Gentle stories like these are important. They teach us the importance of living your truth in a world that would instead hide it. It is dedicated “to all the boys who’ve had to learn to play by different rules.”
"I guess I'm going to tell my dad. I have this little speech. It starts something like this. Dad, I have something to say. I like boys. Don't hate me. Please don't hate me, don't hate me, don't hate me."
This queer novel is a perfect read if your inquisitiveness is piqued by angst and love; it will transcend you to a alternate universe where stars don't twinkle, they explode. The whole idea of this novel is to stifle the ingrained homophobia etched in the mind of the cishet community that often goes unnoticed while highlighting the dilemmas crippling the mind of teenagers. As the reader turns the page to a new chapter, it brings enlightenment and realisation of the unknown, leaving a thread of teardrop on both cheeks, whispering a silent appreciation for the beauty of love depicted through words. There is no exotic Nicholas Sparks plot twists descending into a melodrama, no touch of erotica Fifty Shades of Grey style, not even a fierce declaration of love via Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice–the story of Aristotle and Dante is unique and spiritual, giving a vision to a utopian world.
–Garima Jain & Bhavya Kriti