I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to like Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Anything with “Secrets of the Universe” in the title will be bad unless it refers to a caffeinated beverage. I hold the title in contempt because it’s only a hairsbreadth from a teenager who proclaims that they “feel infinite” in a friends yearbook. Worse than my gripe about the title, was that other people had said it was so good and by nature I’m a staunch contrarian.
But I’m trying to grow as a person and so, I took a chance on a book that I didn’t have much hope for. Aristotle (Ari) isn’t a relentlessly anti-social protagonist who spends most of his time sulking in his room or shutting people out. When he does decide to go out, he meets Dante and they become fast friends bonding over books and poetry.
At this point, the title, the recommendation, the preposterous names, and guys bonding over poetry, should’ve driven me into book-throwing paroxysms and uncontrollable fits of eye-rolling. Empirically, I should hate this book, but I didn’t. I kind of loved it. It wasn’t a fun and sexy romp like so much Gay YA, it was a slow subtle novel with nuanced characters whose relationships are tender even in their silence. Ari and his mother have an easy rapport despite their tense non-acknowledgements of their many family problems. Their banter is endearing and contextualizes the story. Instead of telling us about all the angsty navel-gazing, the author has a story that shows – rather than tells – us their dysfunction. It paints the picture of a family doing the best it can and rather than depressing or maddening, it’s endearing.
Of course the book is about Ari and Dante’s friendship and how it slowly becomes the catalyst for changing their lives. Through their relationship, which for the most part is strictly platonic love, they capture and chronicle their self-discovery and, again, it’s shown organically. Even when Dante comes out to Ari, and confesses his feelings for his friend the book maintains its integrity and negotiates the moment with grace and authenticity. Instead of departing into an inconsistent sexualized mess, Ari’s inability to express himself allows the reader to really get to the core of a journey of self-discovery. The frustration of Ari not knowing himself plays out beautifully in his gradual exploration and self-realization.
It struck a chord in me personally as I remember the confusing feelings as I started to long for other guys. I didn’t have the words to reconcile or affirm my sexual identity and it left me emotionally crippled. I remember how it eroded the relationships with my friends and family. I remember how for almost no reason I would start to cry and that every time I did, it only worsened my shame.
Without ever saying the words depression, homophobia or even homosexual, the author perfectly captured my experience. Somehow, he even created an authentic and uplifting story of validation about gay, mexican-american teenagers in the late 80’s.
This book didn’t really have a hope, and yet I loved it. I recommend it highly to anyone, except contrarians, they should absolutely not read it ever.