Book Review: “Aristotle And Dante Dive Into The Waters Of The World” By Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Alire Sáenz does a wonderful job of making us smile (and even laugh) with teenager-jokes, dad-jokes, and sharp banter between existing and newer characters. I was somehow surprised to learn after reading the book that its author is actually in his 60s.

Note: This review is mostly spoiler-free for those who have read Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of The Universe, and is safe to read before you read the sequel. But honestly, if you loved the first one, just go for it. If you haven’t read either and are in the market for a stunning and super-readable queer story, go go go! I told a friend recently that this pair of novels is like Ocean Vuong for young adults, and I can’t think of many stronger endorsements.

“I was also learning that loving someone was different from falling in love with them.”

This observation of Ari’s in a later chapter of Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World encapsulates the journey that the novel takes its readers on. Dhyanvi Katharani said in their review of the first Aristotle and Dante novel that it “traces their breakthrough from friendship to falling in love.” The sequel to Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s 2012 novel, also set in 1980s Texas, USA picks up right where the first one left off, ie. in Ari’s truck.

Through Ari’s voice and journals, we follow the two Latinx teenagers (Aristotle and Dante) through their final year of high school. After having fallen in love in very different ways, mostly because of their differences, Ari and Dante are now discovering what makes them similar — the delicate harmony between love and lust that they are allowing themselves to lean into, and how they must stand together seemingly “against the world.”

It is a beautiful and powerful exploration of family, identity, love, friendship, vulnerability, loss, and social justice. We continue to see Ari and Dante’s relationships with their parents (and each others’ parents) grow deeper. The book uses a recurring map metaphor that Ari’s mum introduces to describe the process that they must go through of navigating the world from the intersection of their identities.

“Do you know what a cartographer is?”

“Of course I do. Dante taught me that word. It’s someone who creates maps. I mean, they don’t create what’s there, they just map it out and, well, show people what’s there.”

“That’s it, then,” she said.

“You and Dante are going to map out a new world.”

Often accompanying these serious conversations is a note of levity. Alire Sáenz does a wonderful job of making us smile (and even laugh) with teenager-jokes, dad-jokes, and sharp banter between existing and newer characters. I was somehow surprised to learn after reading the book that its author is actually in his 60s. But of course, young adult novels don’t have to be written by people who had those experiences recently. It lent an additional sense of gravity to the setting of the book knowing that Alire Sáenz was a young adult in the period he’s writing about, witnessing the AIDS pandemic break out in 1981 (the books are set in 1987-88). Both families in the book are often watching or talking about the news, and the fears of both social ostracisation and becoming a statistic at the hands of the disease come through strongly.

A key struggle in the first book is the process of coming out for the first time — Dante coming out to Ari and his parents, Ari struggling with his sexuality and his feelings for Dante and his own parents nudging him to acknowledge them. The sequel touches on an experience that many of us will be familiar with — the never-ending coming out, beyond the  ‘firsts.’

The beginning of what? For me, a life of trying to figure out who to trust and who not to trust.”

As Ari embraces his final year of high school, he finds himself opening up to the possibility of new friendships. Though it’s still an upward climb, he is much more willing to trust new people and credits Dante for this change in him. Equally, Dante who has shown streaks of petulance and stubbornness, finds himself growing more patient and understanding. They grow together, as partners in a healthy relationship should, even while negotiating fear, uncertainty, jealousy, and grief. In this book, Ari addresses his journal entries to Dante, so we begin to see even more of Ari’s emotions and internal dialogue than before, as we read the things he can’t always bring himself to say out loud to Dante. We see a raw portrait of desire, of how all-consuming, euphoric, and simultaneously frustrating a new love can be, and how Ari is grappling with it. We also see anger, indignation, a growing softness and kindness, and his nervousness about the future, both more widely, and for his relationship with Dante.

In one entry he writes,

“If we’re very lucky, the universe will send us the people we need to survive.”

This idea of finding our people is one that stayed with me days after finishing the book, as I thought of my chosen family, and how some of us, well into our 20s and 30s and further, are still (and constantly) attempting to be better cartographers of our world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Megha is a queer writer of poetry and prose from Bangalore who works in the not-for-profit sector and really enjoys MasterChef Australia.
Megha Harish

We hate spam as much as you. Enter your email address here.