I was going to wait until Wednesday to post this but something happened that I’ll get into at the end of the post if you haven’t heard about it already.
I decided to start my quest to read more LGBT YA with Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe because I’ve seen it so many times on bookshelves and mentioned online so often that it seemed like the universe (heh) was telling me something. I don’t usually read contemporary, or even many books with male protagonists, but I’m branching out a bit more this year since the smaller volume of LGBT YA fiction overall doesn’t really lend itself to pickiness.
While this wasn’t the first book I read this year, it was the first I really enjoyed reading. I blew through it in a matter of hours. Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s writing style is simple at times while still maintaining a poetic quality to the prose. Just the way I like it. Sáenz doesn’t spell everything out for the reader, so there’s a bit of detective work required to fully understand what’s going on at times and there were a few instances where I had to reread a section to get my head around what was not being said. This was done in a way that I felt respected my intelligence as a reader, as if Sáenz didn’t spell everything out because he trusted his readers enough to figure out what was happening on their own. I’ve said before that teenagers need to be respected as intelligent people, so I was glad to see that here.
The viewpoint character, Ari, was endearing while still obviously a very flawed person. He is prone to fits of melancholy, struggles with the expectations of masculinity and likes fighting a little too much, but he also cares deeply about the people around him and has a wicked sense of humour. Overall he’s quieter than Dante and less comfortable with self-expression, which is a cause for both humour and drama over the course of the novel. I found Dante just as endearing and suffered several cases of second-hand embarrassment on his behalf. Dante doesn’t have much of a brain-to-mouth filter. Or, at times, a brain-to-pen filter.
The development of the relationship between Ari and Dante is central to the novel and subject to Sáenz’s ‘read between the lines’ writing style. At times he dispenses with dialogue tags entirely, which can be somewhat confusing and I found myself using my finger to keep track of which boy was saying what. That being said, however, Sáenz does distribute clues throughout the dialogue to help you if you get confused and, overall, nothing is really lost through the lack of description or dialogue tagging in these sections, which have a quick-fire sense to them as if the boys are bantering back and forth at somewhere in the neighbourhood of the speed of light. The dialogue is both witty and heartbreaking at times, particularly when Ari’s internal monologue does get involved. I found myself oscillating between laughing and wanting to cry in the space of a few lines of dialogue several times throughout the novel.
I also really enjoyed the two boys’ relationships with their parents, who were flawed human beings who still cared very much about their children. Watching Ari’s Vietnam veteran father struggle to communicate with his son (and vice versa) was particularly moving. I don’t have as much of an issue with absentee or dead parents in YA as other readers so (maybe because I write a lot of them myself… oops), but it was refreshing to see parents making an effort to be active in their children’s lives and being an integral part of the plot. It’s unlikely the storyline could have been resolved without them.
The not-great bit:
There’s was one section that didn’t sit quite right with me: an incident of transphobic violence mentioned near the end of the novel. I don’t feel particularly qualified to pass judgment on it as I am not transgender myself, but I think it deserves a mention. An outdated term for transgender individuals is used. I’m not sure at what point in history that particular term came to be regarded as offensive as I was able to find uses of the term in the 1970’s, but I’m not certain if its use carried into the late 80’s when this novel is set. The transgender character is also misgendered by the main characters while discussing her; while these characters might simply be doing this out of ignorance rather than actual malice, I feel that this section could have been done better so we could avoid misgendering the character at all. She’s also a sex worker, which is an all-too-common portrayal of trans women, and purely exists as a plot device for the development of other characters, which is not great. The whole thing is contained to less than three pages near the end of the novel and isn’t brought up again. I’m not the only person who wasn’t sold on this bit, at least. It didn’t completely destroy the story for me, but it’s worth being aware of, especially for readers who are sensitive to this kind of thing.
There is also a case of homophobic violence against a major character. I had no personal issues with its portrayal, but I can understand some potential readers may struggle with it, particularly if they’ve been on the receiving end of that kind of violence or know someone who has.
Overall, despite that issue mentioned above, I really enjoyed this novel and would readily recommend it to anyone looking to read more LGBT YA, or just YA in general. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a clever novel with a good balance between character flaws that cause conflict while still keeping those characters likeable to the reader. It is, in essence, everything I was hoping for when I opened to the first page.
PS: I had this post packed up and ready to go and something happened that I felt was important to share: