If emotions were currency in the world of reading, I would be poor. I’m not the most emotional reader there is. I rarely find myself in tears or in awe of a book. These occasions are so rare that authors and books that do awe me become an obsession. Case in point: Haruki Murakami (there is no need to expound on this, only that I have written two college papers on him and his books). While I enjoy reading many books, normally only one book in a whole year of reading makes my jaw drop and impossibly moves me. This year, this feeling came early. It came in the most unexpected places, in a Young Adult book I read on a whim. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, I thought was good enough reading: It fit the theme, Fats enjoyed what little she read from it and I needed a book to review.
But love comes in the most unexpected of places and I found myself melting and loving Ari and Dante. As lovely as that sounds, its NOT A GOOD THING when writing a review. I find that with books that I love, very much like being in love, I struggle with answering the question why.
When Characters Possess Souls
In his book Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Saenz successfully brings to readers two of the most beautiful souls literature has ever met. While pondering what made Aristotle and Dante so alive, I’ve come to realize it was because they weren’t just three-dimensional, they possessed souls. The author weaved into life two beautiful teenagers who found residence in this reader’s heart. Midway into reading the novel I found myself constantly narrating the events in Ari and Dante’s life to my friends, my sisters, and my sisters’ friends. I narrated these events as if I was talking about people I knew. To me, Ari and Dante were real people. Each time I turned the page, I felt like I was sitting on the table having coffee with friends, laughing at their funny stories and crying for their pain. And yet, as much as I saw them as friends, I also felt I was staring at my soul being bared for others to see.
To say I was moved is an understatement. I felt more than that. I felt alive.
Hard & Tough
Meeting Ari was like getting a glimpse of the person I was at his age. Reading his words, his thoughts, his feeling and his circumstances was like reading my life. I saw myself in Ari, quite easily and that made reading the novel quite strange because what was unknowable to him and maybe to some readers was knowable to me. It was as familiar as my own skin.
Ari is hard and tough. Life made him so. As he would put it, he was born that way. However, no child is born hard. Hardness is a choice a child makes when caught in a situation he cannot possibly figure out. And people like Ari, people like me, who are hard at a young age don’t fit easy in the world of children or teens. In the world of children, being hard is strange. People are not comfortable with hardness. Those of us that were toughened by life either put up a happy front or choose isolation, solitude and loneliness.We sealed who we were deep within our soul, so hidden that we live our lives with so much of ourselves as unknowable. Who would understand our hardness? Who would understand the heart that forced itself to numbness? As we draw answers in our mind, we knew that no one could see who we were. No one could see the heart so much capable of love, but so used to being angry.
Angry was easy. Anger was everything.
But the Tough & Hard seek gentleness. They seek people who can cross the wall. The moment Dante approached Ari in the pool, Dante, Ari knew was an exception. Ari knew instantly he wanted to be friends with Dante. No matter how much of a loner he was, he wanted this person inside that circle and he did what he could to keep it that way. Watching tough and hard Ari navigate his friendship with Dante was an emotional journey. It was clear Dante was irreplaceable in Ari’s life but he approached it with so much fear. He was hesitant in leaving what he knew to the change awaiting within him.
(Trying to learn why his older Brother was in Prison) “If Dante was here, he could help me. He’s smart. He’d exactly know what to do. I don’t need Dante. I can do this on my own.”
(His letter to Dante when Dante notes he barely writes back). “This is my problem. I want other people to tell me how they feel. But I’m not so sure I want to return the favor.”
Diving into friendship for the tough & hard meant opening yourself to the things Ari (and I) thought to be a form of weakness. Ari didn’t know what feelings were, he didn’t understand them as concretely as Dante. Throughout the novel we get an image of this.
“ They were all over me, hugging me and saying nice things, and I wanted to cry. Because their affection was so real and somehow I felt I didn’t deserve it…But I had learned to hide what I felt. No, that’s not true. There was no learning involved. I had been born knowing how to hide what I felt.”
He liked how this warm feeling felt but deemed all that love and emotion a burden. Ari was someone who was far removed from things that weren’t tough & hard…until Dante.
Gentle & Vulnerable
I knew Ari like I knew myself. I love that Ari could love and appreciate Dante, because I would too. Dante was in many ways what Ari wasn’t. His world, as Dante puts it is without Darkness.
Dante saw beauty like it was everywhere. The moment he stretched his arm and offered to teach Ari to swim he was already perfect. This was a boy who saw people’s hearts. He wasn’t intimidated by the façade of the Tough & Hard. Dante understood the secrets of the universe. He saw the softness and gentleness Ari needed. He showed Ari what it meant to care for the little things, like wounded birds, and for the bigger things like family.
Dante writes in his letter to Ari…
Dante knew the world and he knew Ari and felt his pain. And this what made Dante so endearing to me. This bit about the painting made my heart stop just for a while, because people like Ari and I need people like Dante.
” Ari, I’m trying not to be ashamed.”
And he was not. Dante stood tall for things he believed in. He did what his heart believed was right. He didn’t fit a mold. He didn’t deserve a mold. He was who he was. And how I wished the world wasn’t so bent on labels. Dante wasn’t limited to the labels thrown at him and he was vocal about that. He was not an intellectual. Not Mexican. Not Gay. Just Human.
It took the Gentle & Vulnerable to open the worlds of the Tough & Hard. Dante’s persistence to offer friendship to Ari was so endearing. The way he insisted on writing those letters even if Ari rarely responded. His honesty in his letter and how he told Ari about his journey to discovering he liked kissing boys was beautiful. This was Dante making himself vulnerable and open to judgment, but people like Dante knew what the tough & hard don’t:
Real relationships meant being vulnerable with people.
(Dante’s letter to Ari about telling his parents he wants to marry a boy) “I’m a little worried that we won’t be friends when I get back. I guess I have to deal with these things. I hate lying to people, Ari.”
Life is Paradox
“She is tough as hell, but soft too.” (Ari & Dante talking about Dante’s Mother)
In discovering the secrets of the universe, Ari and Dante discover the universe of themselves. They are changed by the circumstances of their being and learned that life would set them to become like Mrs. Quintana – tough and soft, for isn’t that what life is about?
Tough and hard Ari resists softness in all accounts. He reasons and doesn’t feel, but he finds himself constantly doing things not dictated by his tough and hard persona, but by that warm heart that sits beneath his ice-cold ribs.
” I didn’t know what to do with that piece of information. So I just kept it inside. That’s what I did with everything. Kept it inside.”
“Maybe my dad just didn’t need words to get by in this world. I wasn’t like that. Well, I was like that on the outside, pretending not to need words. But I wasn’t like that on the inside. On the inside I was more like Dante. That really scared me.”
Tough Ari had Gentle Dante in him and watching him resist it, to stay with the familiar was painful and yet when he emerged and embraced life’s secrets, he discovered he wasn’t just tough, he too was soft.
Dante’s journey to hardness was painful, it took kissing a boy, a swollen face and broken ribs to get him there.
Ari describes Dante:
The sadness came in the picture slowly and Ari witnessed this. Dante wasn’t as carefree and joyous as he was. He wore pain and rejection. It began when he knew who he was and the truth that accompanied this.
“I think you know what it means. Someday, someone will walk up to you and say: “why are you hanging out with that queer?” If you can’t stick by me as a friend, Ari, if you can’t do that, then maybe it’s better that you just, you know—it would kill me. You know if would kill me if you—“
Dante was worried, scared and sadder. He learned like his mother he could be tough and soft too. Ari and Dante discovered that everyone was wounded. None of them, not even their parents were perfect or just plain bad. They discover what Ari’s mother puts so succinctly:
“We all have to bear things, Ari. All of us. Your father has to bear the war and what it did to him. You have to bear your own painful journey to becoming a man. And it is painful for you, isn’t it Ari?”
Ari and Dante discover this truth in the process of discovering who they were. Like those of us old enough to have gone through life, they too discovered its paradox. We are all both brave and scared. We are all tough and gentle.
We are all hard and vulnerable. And all of us need love.
“Why do we smile? Why do we laugh? Why do we feel alone? Why are we sad and confused? Why do we read poetry? Why do we cry when we see a painting? Why is there a riot in the heart when we love? Why do we feel shame? What is that thing in the pit of your stomach called desire?”
At the heart of this novel is Love—not the hallmark kind or the cheesy kind, rather the real kind. The kind of love that runs deep. The kind of love that comes in several different containers but in essence is the same thing. The kind of love that is unconditional—that is both a gift and a burden. The kind of love that isn’t always sweet, but is constant. The kind of love that doesn’t need to be labeled or boxed to fit the world. It talks about the kind of love that those who have truly loved need not define.
Saenz doesn’t shy away from the deep pain that comes with loving people and this is the soul of this novel. Love unfurls its petals slowly as if to manifest its beauty it must painfully open itself up and test the waters.
It doesn’t matter who we love, whether it’s our parents, our children, our friends, the opposite sex or the same sex, love requires the same thing, that we hold into our hearts and embrace the perfectly damaged person in front of us. This is what makes love beautiful. If the reader must take away something from this novel, if there is one secret the universe whispers in this book, it is that
love is not easy but it’s freeing and worth it. There is nothing shameful about love.
This was a story that goes beyond two boys discovering love. This was story that drew the map of love in the relationship between Dante’s parents, Ari’s parents, and their respective love for Dante and Ari. It was a story that understood the human heart, the knots it held and how many of us try to love people the best way we can.
There is more that can be said of this novel. There is the writing, the skillful storytelling and the other issues tackled. I could go on and on. Isn’t that what we do when we talk about people and things we love? Yet, if I must tell you why I love this book, why it is worth reading then let me answer with this:
Because in it is the secret of the universe.