Two 15-year-old boys, each spending the afternoon at the community pool: “I can teach you how to swim,” one says to the other. With this kind and innocent offer, a relationship begins that will alter both of these boys, and their families, as they forge a friendship that will help them on their journey to becoming men.
Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza is the classic loner. He prefers his own company to that of others. He is also perpetually bored, moody, and has bouts of inexplicable anger. With nothing better to do on a summer morning in 1987, he heads to the community pool. While he enjoys being in the water (in El Paso in summer), Ari doesn’t know how to swim. When Dante Quintana offers to teach him and he agrees, it’s the beginning of something special. Dante is also 15, also Mexican-American like Ari, but that is where their similarities seem to end: Dante is an only child, while Ari has three much older siblings. While Ari is quiet and contemplative, Dante speaks whatever is on his mind, asking and saying things Ari would never dream of uttering. Even their parents are different: Ari’s Dad is a postal worker, his Mom is a school teacher; Dante’s Dad is a college professor and his Mom is a therapist. With so little in common, they seem an unlikely pair.
But in spite of, or possibly because of, their differences, Ari and Dante become inseparable. They talk to each other about things they’ve never told anyone else, and challenge each other to see things in different ways. They become friends. And over the course of the summer, this new friendship will be challenged--and strengthened--in ways neither the boys nor their parents would ever have expected.
Adolescence is a common subject that writers tackle with varying degrees of success. Often times it is overly romanticized and described as “the best years of my/your life!” Conversely, an author will paint a much darker image of despair, loneliness and tragic circumstances, deepened by the lack of life experience. In Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, author Benjamin Alire Saenz achieves what few writers seem able to do: write believable teenage characters that behave, act, and think like actual teenagers. Their conversations, actions, interactions with parents, and inner dialogues are instantly recognizable. Another nice touch is that all of the parents are real people too. Neither saints nor simply intent on making the boys’ lives miserable, they are well intentioned, love their children and spouses, and are dealing with the realities of their lives in the best ways they can.
We all know, have known or possibly were/are people like the characters in this book. But Saenz not only captures the realism of adolescence but he somehow makes the recognizable life of two teenage boys in a small town almost lyrical. The challenges that are presented to the boys are believable and recognizable, and some occurrences that the reader may question earlier in the book become more clear as the plot progresses.
The less the reader knows about plot specifics going in, the more enhanced will be his/her enjoyment of the novel as the narrative develops. While Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe has been published as a Young Adult title, this is a novel, like many other YA books, that can and should be enjoyed by a much larger audience. Anyone who is 15, will soon be 15, or remembers what it was like to be 15 will find this 2013 Printz Honor Book a truly remarkable read!