What would a closeted gay teenager in the 80s feel like? How would you feel when you’re at the brink of adulthood but not a real adult? What would you do when your body is changing in ways you cannot control? ‘Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe’ begins with questions like these and gives us a glimpse into the lives of two Mexican teenagers living in El Paso in the 1980s. The novel is a coming-of-age story which explores their sexual awakening. Ari and Dante incidentally meet at the swimming pool and become friends as Dante teaches Ari how to swim. The two are poles apart but find a middle ground for their bond to grow further. The novel traces their breakthrough from friendship to falling in love.
Aristotle and Dante express their love for each other very differently. Dante is an open book – he says he misses Ari when he misses him, he writes him long letters and at times even flirts with him. On the contrary, Ari cannot articulate his emotions into words but instinctively comes to Dante’s rescue to protect him in times of danger. The book gives us many adorable moments between Ari and Dante. For instance, when Ari is stuck at home because of the flu, Dante gives him company and reads to him many poems.
“Dante and I were cursed with parents who cared. Why couldn’t they just leave us alone? What ever happened to parents who were too busy or too selfish or just didn’t give a shit about what their sons did?”
Unlike many YA novels, parents are not just a source of annoyance but take active part in the young adults’ lives. Ari and Dante don’t have many friends – they both often go to their parents when they are confused or need company. At times like these, they treat the boys like individuals rather than their child, making them feel validated and heard. Perhaps what was most astonishing was the fact that it was Ari’s parents who made him realise that he is falling for Dante. Which definitely comes as relief to Ari because he was even afraid to admit it to himself. They radiate so much warmth and love that queer people will find themselves wishing for parents like these.
Even though Dante knows his parents love him unconditionally, he feels the guilt of not being straight. He thinks when he comes out he will disappoint his parents because he won’t be able to give them a grand-child. Coming out to parents is daunting to him, not only because of the unpredectabiliy of their reaction but also because somewhere, he is placing himself against the heteronormative standards of society. Perhaps, if this book was set in today’s times, Dante would’ve felt more confident to come out, but as a Mexican-American teenager living in the 80s? This was a genuine fear.
“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.”
One of the greatest achievements of this novel lies in its narrative. The first person narrative lets the readers see the labyrinths of suppressed emotions that are bottled inside the body of a fifteen-year-old Ari. His dad served in war, which changed his relations with his family – he became quieter and distanced. Ari feels like he doesn’t know his father and he cannot talk to him. Ari’s elder brother is in prison but what for, he doesn’t know.
The book explores some Freaudian themes of childhood trauma and dreams. Ari doesn’t know what happened with his brother and this manifests as the fear of the unknown in his dreams. In one dream, he is trying to reach out to his brother but he is left completely helpless because they don’t seem to understand each other’s language. In another one of his recurring dreams, he is driving in the rain and he runs over Dante because he is distracted by the girl who is sitting next to him. These dreams show Ari himself how he is unwilling to admit to himself just how he feels. He feels guilty not just because he ran over Dante, but more so because he was distracted by a girl. Somewhere, he is placing Dante against the girl – which gives us a hint that he is unknowingly thinking about his sexuality. His dreams indicate that he has been thinking about Dante, but he doesn’t openly show it through his behaviour. The fear of losing Dante or someone harming him is so scary to Ari that he would rather put himself in danger, which he does twice in the book.
The journey of accepting your sexuality is as varied as people are. Ari’s journey is more complicated and linked to other issues, while for Dante, the acceptance is slightly easier. Instead of making the story just about discovering your sexuality, Saenz takes a multi-faceted approach. Coming out is linked to many different aspects of one’s life like self-acceptance, friendship, family, and past trauma. Saenz beautifully weaves these into the story making the narrative rich and Ari’s character much more relatable. This novel gives a voice to young people who find themselves questioning their sexuality. It creates a safe space for uncertainty, doubts, questions and confusions to exist.
This book beautifully captures the summer nostalgia and how it feels to come out of it as a new person. It’s the state of tranquility before you’re pushed into the next grade. You get the time to ponder over long afternoons, spend time with your friends and pick up some new hobbies. If you’re looking for some wholesome queer books to read over the summer, this must be on your TBR.
Saenz is set to release the much awaited sequel of the novel, ‘Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World’, this October. It resumes where the first novel ended, following the journey of their relationship. Set in the 90s, the novel will also deal with the effect of AIDS on their lives. It will be interesting to see how the events of the novel unfold and if their relationship stands the test of time.