El Paso, 1987.
Despite being polar opposites—outgoing/restrained, gregarious/quiet, open/shut, only child/youngest of many, pacifist/fighter—fifteen-year-olds Aristotle Mendoza and Dante Quintana are good friends from the moment they meet:
"What are you allergic to?"
"The air," he said.
That made me laugh.
"My name's Dante," he said.
That made me laugh harder. "Sorry," I said.
"It's okay. People laugh at my name."
"No, no," I said. "See, it's just that my name's Aristotle."
His eyes lit up. I mean, the guy was ready to listen to every word I said.
"Aristotle," I repeated.
Then we both kind of went a little crazy. Laughing.
Through the war of the shoes, through illness and heroism, through a year-long separation, through challenging life changes and realizations, they remain friends. Closer at some points that at others, but always friends. At some point, though, it becomes clear that Dante's feelings for Ari have blossomed into something more complicated than best-friendship... and both of them are eventually going to have to come to terms with that, regardless of the emotional walls that Ari's been living behind for so many years.
I love the cover on this one: see how the artwork on each side of the title is representative of Ari and Dante? (The truck parked in the middle of nowhere is a detail right out of the book as well!) Nice job with that, Simon & Schuster.
It's not going to win over every reader who picks it up. Reason the First: the boys take a long time to get where they're going, and while that pacing is true to the story and the characters, some readers are likely to lost interest. Reason the Second: Ari's tendency to hold everyone (including himself) at arm's length may make it difficult to form an emotional connection with him. And Reason the Second, Part B: Sáenz clearly has confidence in his characters, their story, and in his readers, because he never tips his hand. Ari is Ari, from the first page to the last, and Ari is the opposite of an open book... which, depending on taste, could definitely make for a frustrating reading experience.
Me, I liked it. A lot. I loved how the book dealt with Ari and Dante's extremely different feelings about their Mexican heritage without making it into a Heavy Issue:
"We're not really Mexicans. Do we live in Mexico?
"But that's where our grandparents came from."
"Okay, okay. But do we actually know anything about Mexico?"
"We speak Spanish."
"Not that good."
"Speak for yourself, Dante. You're such a pocho."
"What's a pocho?"
"A half-assed Mexican."
"Okay, so maybe I'm a pocho. But the point I'm making here is that we can adopt other cultures."
But I also loved how it didn't dismiss those feelings about family and family history and so on as irrelevant or unimportant. In terms of conflict, those issues very definitely take a backseat to sexuality and identity, but they're no less important in terms of the characters' worldviews or their ultimate growth.
And you know the simple-yet-profound thing? When authors are capable of capturing a huge feeling with just a few words? Sáenz nails that again and again:
So I was the son of a man who had Vietnam living inside him. Yeah, I had all kinds of tragic reasons for feeling sorry for myself. Being fifteen didn't help. Sometimes I thought that being fifteen was the worst tragedy of all.
A lot goes on in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, in terms of both plot and emotion, and yet, because of Ari's voice—which, even internally, is extremely restrained—it feels like a very sedate, calm read*. While the dialogue often feels scripted—like in some plays and old movies—it works. When combined with everything else in the book—voice, storyline, setting, and era—it just feels right.
*How many commas are in that sentence? SIX? That's excessive, even for me.
Book source: ILLed through my library. This book was read for the 2012 Cybils season.