“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

I said that my next review would be of The Raven King. But I lied, because I don’t think I can do it justice in a review. I might reread it, and then write a review. I might not write a review. I might just let my thoughts stew in my head until I understand what I thought separate from all the expectations I had, and then write a review. WHO KNOWS. I wrote about this on my main blog, though, which may interest you if you’re looking for that review and not finding it.

This book was … massively hyped for me, so it might not be the best option for reviewing something that I didn’t have preconceived ideas about. But they were primarily expectations that I’d inherited from seeing all the award stickers on the cover, and the number of lists of “best LGBT fiction” etc that I’d seen it on. They weren’t personal feelings. So it’s different.

aristotle and danteI’d been dithering about whether to buy this for a while. My local library system didn’t have it, and I wasn’t sure how to request it because they changed the system. It’s a US paperback — they don’t seem to have released a proper UK edition with normal dimensions, and I’m weird about the size of my books, so that was a point against it. But I’m only reading blue books at the moment (long story), I was in Foyles, it wasn’t too expensive…

So I bought it. I rarely buy books that I don’t already know I’m going to love, which means I expected a lot more from it than I would from a library book. Library books are allowed to be okay; books I’ve paid full price for have to be awesome.

And this didn’t quite live up to those standards. I enjoyed it, but not as much as I would have liked.

It took me a long time to get into: I didn’t really engage with the writing style, which tells a lot and shows very little and used far too many words to say each thing that it said. It read like that was the voice Sáenz was going for, rather than that it was bad writing, but I didn’t particularly like it. A lot of it was lost on me culturally: I’m a British 90s kid who has never knowingly met a Mexican person, so a story about being a Mexican-American kid in 1987 had a few barriers that I found tricky to cross.

I think it’s important to read outside of your comfort zone and read about different characters, obviously, but it meant it took me longer to engage and get involved because I just didn’t understand the colloquialisms and the cultural ideas that Ari was using to explore his identity.

That said, I did get really invested in the characters, once I reached a point where I felt able to do that. Ari (Aristotle) is hugely relatable, particularly as someone who didn’t figure out they were queer until nearly seventeen. The book covers his journey from 15 to just turning 17, so we were on a similar timescale. His struggles to figure out who he is and to engage with the people around him were relatable. Dante was … more of a mystery to me, but I think that’s because he’s supposed to be a mystery to the reader, too — Ari is narrating, and he still hasn’t figured him out.

Dante hates shoes, though, and I can identify with that. The number of times my parents had to tell me to wear shoes as a teenager because I kept taking them off and leaving them around — I’m still prone to taking them off at the first possible moment (e.g. on a beach) and then not putting them on again for hours. So that was relatable. I seem to remember the summer of 2012 was a particularly notable one for just outright refusing to wear shoes — climbing hills, walking around parks, even just wandering around my own town. Maybe 2011 a bit as well. Anyway, sidenote. Back to Aristotle and Dante.

I had plenty of feelings about this book. I wished in places it would be subtler about evoking them, which goes back to the writing style thing — I could understand how Ari was feeling about his dad opening up to him without the narrative outright saying “I was happy that he was sharing something about himself”. I felt a little bit like the narration didn’t trust me to make those leaps myself, although it got a bit subtler as the book went on and became more dialogue-heavy as Ari opened up a bit. There were some parts that were beautifully written; it’s particularly the early chapters that were just a bit too over-heavy on the explanations.

I don’t know. If I had borrowed this book from the library, I would probably say that I enjoyed it a fair amount, but it wasn’t quite as amazing and fantabulous as all the awards it’s won suggested — that it didn’t quite hit the spots for me. Because I bought it, and it was one of only two books this month for which I paid full price (I’m a bargain hunter), I have higher standards.

One thing I loved about the book, though: parents. Parents who are actually involved in the narrative, who have an important role, who love their kids even while trying to be protective and make sure they don’t get themselves arrested or whatever. Parents that the teenage characters occasionally resent for trying to run their life, but which are still nevertheless a very present and important part of their lives. That’s so rare in YA fiction, and shouldn’t be. I appreciated that.

I don’t quite know how to rate it. It’s probably a 3.5 star read for me. I may have been spoiled by reading a handful of really good books recently, but even so … I feel like I’m missing whatever it was that caused so many of my book blogger friends to give it five stars, and I feel the need to give it a higher rating than I really want to because it’s so popular, but honestly, it would feel dishonest to give it four stars here.

It’s good, it just didn’t quite hit the spots for me personally.

Rating: ***

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5 thoughts on ““Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

  1. Hey Ashers! says:

    This one hasn’t been high on my TBR, and your review’s strengthened its position in the middle-ish–though the fact that the kids’ parents are actually being parents intrigues me. Parenty parents are too rare in YA.

    “It’s a US paperback — they don’t seem to have released a proper UK edition with normal dimensions, and I’m weird about the size of my books, so that was a point against it.”

    Okay, now I’m curious. What are “normal” dimensions for a paperback in the UK?

    • Miriam Joy says:

      Ha, I can’t remember off the top of my head but they’re a bit smaller. US ones seem to vary — I have a couple that are only like 2mm taller than UK B-format (which is the most common), and some that are more like a centimetre. In size, ours go Trade, A-format, B-format, and then there are the tiddlers like the Corgi Pratchett editions. Some day I’m going to make a chart so people know why I get annoyed by trade paperbacks (which…should not exist. If it’s gonna be that big, make it hardback.)

      • Hey Ashers! says:

        Huh, neat. Yeah, I’d love to see a chart alongside some annoyed venting. Hope you can get around to that eventually! 🙂

        I also had to look up “tiddlers,” having never seen the word before. I’m just learning all the things today.

      • Miriam Joy says:

        Haha. Small beasties. Or whatever.
        I’ll line all my books up in height order and label them some time. “normal size” “freakishly huge” “weird North American edition” etc etc

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