Book Review: “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” (2013) by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

"Nighthawks" (1942) by Edward Hopper.

“Nighthawks” (1942) by Edward Hopper.


Aristotle is a Mexican-American teenager living in El Paso. He has never had a friend. His father has closed off emotionally after coming back from the war in Vietnam. His brother is in prison. His mother won’t talk about it. And then he meets Dante.

Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe is all about communication: every single character we meet is fighting inner demons and struggling to say what they really mean. The main character, Aristotle, is full of anger and confusion: on the one hand he is a loner who does not feel comfortable talking about his feelings, but on the other hand he is desperate to connect to his parents and to Dante. It is like there is a forcefield following him around wherever he goes, preventing him from truly getting close to someone. Meeting Dante is the first crack that slowly spreads as Aristotle frantically tries to figure out whether he wants to tear down that wall or keep it up at all cost.

Aristotle is a fascinating narrator and Sáenz does a fantastic job at giving him a very distinctive voice that fits the theme of the novel: the language is sparse and direct, the sentences short and to the point. Since Aristotle is not good at articulating how he feels and often actively avoids talking about it at all, a lot of the emotion comes from what is not said, the silence, the empty spaces. In many ways the style reminds me of Ernest Hemingway, who is even mentioned in the story at one point; he also uses brevity and directness to reflect the characters’ struggle with emotions and personal relationships. However, whereas I often have trouble relating to Hemingway’s characters, Sáenz has given the people that inhabit his book a stunning vulnerability; they can be harsh and socially inept, but these flaws do not make them unlikable. Even though they make mistakes, they are trying and that makes all the difference. They want to do better, to reach out and take the other person’s hand in theirs, but only end up running even further away and hating themselves for it.

In Aristotle and Dante, everyone is lost and broken, trying to figure out who they are and what the world wants them to be. They are all trapped inside their own heads, struggling with their heritage, their sexuality, or their past, desperate to talk and yet unable to say what they mean. The hurt is raw and immediate; it creeps up on you until, out of nowhere, you find yourself tearing up and wondering where the hell that came from.

It is not a coincidence that Aristotle likes Dante’s drawings because they are “true.” As Ernest Hemingway’s fictional counterpart puts it in Midnight In Paris: “It was a good book because it was an honest book.”

We need more young adult novels like this one.

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9 thoughts on “Book Review: “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” (2013) by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

  • November 5, 2014 at 4:11 pm

    Looks like an interesting work, and worth re-reading up on the real Aristotle before or after!

  • December 6, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    As sometimes silence can mean more than a sentence, other it is words that truly express something else.
    This. This is what I felt and loved about Aristotle and Dante’s story. Perfectly descripted.
    Thank you very much!<3

  • December 6, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    I also read this book in 2014 and I liked it very much. I immediately treated myself to another of Saenz’s book (Last night I sang to the monster) and after reading that, I’m convinced of Saenz’s credibility as a magician of a writer! And you’re absolutely right when you say we need more YA novels like this one, we do!

  • December 8, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    so I just saw the giveaway thing, and even though I don’t usually participate in things like this (too lazy, honestly) I decided to give it a try because I would love to own a copy of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (I already own The Ocean at the End of the Lane, bought my copy on a trip to Prague). They are both such wonderful books, but what I especially liked is how the parents in Aristotle and Dante were portrayed. I also adore my parents (like Dante) and it always seems weird to me how in a lot of YAs the parents are barely mentioned, and for most of us, they are among the most important people in our lives.

  • December 11, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    Yara, I love your website! very beautifully designed :) xGwyn

  • January 6, 2015 at 5:41 pm

    I came back from visiting my parents for the weekend (and a Monday) to find the book I you sent me waiting for me. I picked it up around 2 pm – I really shouldn’t have, because I have the mother of all resits coming up – when my curiosity and my mighty need to procrastinate got the better of me. It’s a little before 5 pm now, and I just put it down and changed its status on Goodreads from “currently reading” to “read”.

    Then I had to rate it. I changed my mind two times, because I did not want to hurt your feelings by not giving it at least four stars. I might have given it four stars, too, if it weren’t for the fact that it reminded me of one of my biggest literary (and general) pet peeves. I know the conversation on page 348-9 was coming, but I STRONGLY disagree with the argument they’re making.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think it was a good read, and I definitely didn’t dislike it. This was mostly an “it’s not you, it’s me” type situation. I was binge-watching some nostalgia fuel on Netflix the other day – damn my procrastination habits – when I realised that I stopped being a secondary school pupil four years ago, and I could no longer connect to the kinds of problems that these kids were going through. I’m all for escapism, that’s why I read so many fantasy novels, but when the story is realistic I find myself wanting to identify with the characters. This novel dealt with a Mexican-American boy in the 80s, and since I am none of these things, it took more energy than my brain had left to transport myself to that world.

    I’ve always had trouble connecting to works of literature on a more abstract level (I think I mentioned before that I didn’t like “The Catcher in the Rye” when I read it in secondary school, and to me it’s still just a book about some kid ambling around town) and I suppose getting a BA degree in English wasn’t enough to get rid of that. I don’t mind, most of the time. I have my Neil Gaiman, and those novels require a different kind of connection. Still, I wish I could have seen the things that you see when you read this novel. I’m sure I will give it another try a year from now, though. Some books are much better the second time around.

    • January 7, 2015 at 9:53 am

      (I don’t actually own a copy of Aristotle and Dante myself, so I don’t know which conversation is on those pages.)

      First, I’m glad to hear that you have received the book! And secondly, tastes and reading experiences differ, so it is not only natural but necessary that we should arrive at different conclusions. We can’t possibly agree all the time, where’s the fun in that? That said, I read this book when I was in need of a story exactly like this and some kind of assurance that a book could still make me feel deeply; it was the perfect fit for my state of mind at the time, and even though it is not perfect (but what book is?), I think it is very well-written and thought through.

      As for being able to identify with protagonists, it all depends on how you read and what you are looking for in a book. I think many readers have different demands and expectations when it comes to realistic and fantastic fiction, you’re definitely not alone there. Like you said, there is the escapism factor and people are generally more willing to stretch their imaginations that little bit further when it has already been called into action by the existence of dragons and so on.

      I think we all have a tendency to enjoy a book more when we can relate to the main character, but I would argue for not letting that be a prerequisite for appreciating a work. It is so tempting to stay in the comfort zone of straightforward identification, and if you just want a read to be relaxing and fun and not too challenging, this is fine (seriously, it is). However, if you want to get more from your reading experience, especially as a student of literature, going outside that comfort zone is the way we learn and grow.

      Research has shown that reading helps with developing empathy, and it’s easy to see how that works: when you read, you choose to see the world through someone else’s eyes for a time. This is a challenge; I don’t think many people realise that empathy does not come easy, it is not something you can either do or you can’t. It is a skill you develop through practice and exposure (much like literary analysis, come to think of it). It is hard work and it requires the motivation to stretch yourself further; you read, you evaluate, and then you adjust your world view, and every new adjustment, no matter how small, helps you develop a fuller understanding of how people think and why. There is a learning curve in grappling with opinions you don’t agree or identify, and thinking about why something does or does not speak to you is an incredibly valuable tool in fine tuning your own worldview… But it does take effort. You said it yourself: ‘since I am none of those things, it took more energy than my brain had left.’ There’s a reason it’s called “pushing yourself.”

      (Again, and I cannot emphasise this enough, there is nothing wrong with wanting reading to be fun and relaxing.)

      Finally, I always encourage rereading! So much depends on the right place and the right time, and I know that I read very differently now than I did a few years ago. Take your example of The Catcher in the Rye: I hated it when I was a teenager because little happens and it doesn’t really go anywhere, but when I reread it about a year ago, I fell hopelessly in love with because it hit me just how lonely Holden is and that he wanders around the city aimlessly because he has nowhere to go and can’t bear to go home and face his parents. How heartbreaking is that? In the years that had passed, I had changed and so my perspective had changed, too.

      I hope that, even though it was not what you’d hoped it would be, you still got something out of this book! Maybe you will like it more after a later reread, but maybe you won’t, and that’s okay. Sometimes a book just doesn’t speak to you, it happens. That doesn’t mean that you read it the “wrong” way or that the book itself isn’t good. Like you said, it could just be an “it’s not you, it’s me” situation.

      • January 7, 2015 at 12:07 pm

        Perhaps “I really want to distract myself from this big exam I have coming up” was not the best reason to start reading this book. Or at least not the reason that led to me getting as much out of it as possible. I make a point of rereading every book I discussed in my literature classes, though – because there are often at least 50 sides to the story that I did not catch in my race to do all my assigned reading, and I frequently end up absolutely loving a story when I thought it was meh before (see also: Jane Austen’s Emma) – and I’ll give this one the same treatment (though not in 2015, because Goodreads doesn’t count rereads ;)).

        HERE, THERE BE SPOILERS (formulated as vaguely as possible, but still)

        I don’t want to give too much of the plot away to anyone who might glance at this comment, but the conversation I referred to included a line that I desperately wanted to highlight and add exclamation marks to: “Because he’s my friend.” It’s not the case they’re making, but the argument they’re using. I’m tired of this never being a good enough reason, and that’s really colouring my judgement. I would have liked the story much better if that one conversation had been phrased differently.

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