I read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Simon and Schuster, 2012), by Benjamin Alire Saenz, in under 48 hours. The same 48 hours in which my husband left on a business trip and I started a new job and still had to care for two children on my own. I read so much I barely slept, and sleep is precious to me. Would you go without eating for a day just to read a book? Same thing for me with sleep. I don’t give it up easily. So what makes people do that? Stay up all night over a book?
In the case of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, it was the characters. Sáenz made me care about the two boys, their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, and their dogs. I cared so much about every single person in the whole damn book, really. How does an author get you to care so much about his characters that you will give up things that are valuable and precious to you just to keep reading? Sáenz did it by:
- Showing us who his characters are through their actions.
- Having his characters tell us they are one thing, but showing us they are another.
- Withholding critical information until the end, and then making it worth waiting for.
- Having a character change, really change, during the course of the book.
- Giving us characters that have flaws as big as alligators, but are still likeable, then letting them wrestle those alligators right before our eyes. It’s painful, but riveting.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is the story of two boys, both of them outsiders, both of them awkward. It’s narrated by Aristotle (Ari), a big angry kid who just can’t make sense of anything: his family (especially his father), other boys his age, girls, and life in general. When he does make a friend (Dante), he isn’t sure about him either, but Ari learns. He learns so much in the course of this book. Ari learns the secrets of the Universe. All of them. He learns about love and loss and friendship and courage and loyalty and, well, everything.
This is LGBT literature (I guess), but it shouldn’t be labeled, because it transcends any label, like love transcends gender. This book isn’t really about gay love, it’s about love. It’s not about boys coming of age, it’s about people becoming aware and mature. It’s important that this book find its audience, and I’m still wondering who that audience is. Older young adults, for sure (with parents who are okay with their kids reading about real stuff, like masturbation and pot and sexuality), as well as anyone looking to know more about what it feels like to grow up gay today.
Oh yeah, and anyone who believes in love and wants to know what the secrets of the Universe are. Help this book find its audience. Read it.