As evidenced by the three stickers of award-endorsing-approval on the cover, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz, is well regarded by people who control stickers on books. Also by all of the young adults on the internet. And then all the readers on Goodreads. Why do they like it? It’s a romance, a bildungsroman, a redemption for the weirdo (and don’t all readers of YA identify as weirdos, themselves?), an affirmation of family, an exploration of identity in all its shapes.
I read it on the recommendation of A., a former student, constant brilliant book recommender (but for real). She wasn’t wrong to recommend it. It’s a well written, character driven, heart-full novel of friendship and love. (I should add that finishing this one concludes my summer recommended list – and I only waited so long because there was an epic waiting list at the library. Apparently this one is Popular).
So why didn’t I like it? The novel hinges on the significant realization of our first person protagonist, Aristotle, that comes at the climax of the novel. The reader – through the narrator – is offered clues to the realization, dropped hints attempting to build the punch. I guess my complaint is that much as knowing ourselves is a constant sequence of discovery, I felt nervous that our protagonist was being used, or my reaction was being manipulated, or some combination of the two. Emotional hostage to the novelistic equivalent of swelling music. Where my only option is to cry even though I’m not convinced the character development is sufficiently worthy of the reaction. Or that I should ever have to cry.
My other concern is the optimism of the novel. Not a common complaint from me (the eternal optimist), but in a novel that provides a model (as we might argue YA novels do) for growing up well, it offers some idealistic visions of the American family (and certainly of American health care).
And the writing is good, but it’s writing that wants to be good. Blue skies bleached pale kind of writing. Short sentences that Argue Profundity.
I say I didn’t like it, but I’m not saying you shouldn’t read it. It takes a solid afternoon of reading and gives a language and setting for re-encountering (if you’re no longer YA) the experience of self-discovery (ha. as if that stops when you enter adulthood) and the bafflement of wanting what you want when it isn’t what you should want. Speaking of which… time for carrot cake.