Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

I’ve been on a quest to read more current young adult literature to augment the classic literature I hand out in class.  Basically, I need to find more modern and contemporary pieces that I can recommend that are outside of the typical “classic literature” cannon.  So I turned to reading my way through the Printz awards.  Many of the well-known young adult authors got their starts from the promotion of this award and I haven’t read a book from this list that I didn’t like.

AristotleOne of them that caught my attention was called Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz.  The title alone made me wonder what it was about plus it’s won several other awards including the Stonewall and Lambda awards, both of which are awards for LGBT young adult literature.  I wanted to dig a little deeper since the summary on the back of the book mentioned only a friendship between Aristotle and Dante, yet it had won awards from the LGBT community so I figured there must be a character who comes out in the book or both characters are dealing with coming out or something along those lines.  I haven’t read any literature featuring LGBT young people and I want to have a good piece of literature in case any of my students do come out or are looking to understand a new perspective due to a friend or relative coming out.

I’m the sort of reader who likes to guess the ending of the book without actually jumping ahead and reading.  It’s a game I play with myself to keep me reading and engaged with the text.  So knowing that one of the boys in the book was going to come out, I was constantly on the look out for any clues that would let me guess which one.  I won’t give anything away, but I’ll tell you I wasn’t able to guess but I wasn’t shocked when it was revealed.  The author was very careful to avoid stereotypes and yet not go the other extreme and have a character that was unbelievable as a gay teen come out.  Instead, the author uses his almost poetic style to bring the reader into the minds of the characters and the circumstances of the plot so that we are there with them.  Saenz excels at showing not telling.

I can’t say much more without really spoiling everything but what I will say is that until the very end I was really, really into the book.  Like I read it all in a Sunday afternoon.  Ignored the grading, the football games, my football picks, and getting dressed for the day.  It was that good of a book.  And what I appreciated about the book wasn’t that it wasn’t all about homosexuality.  There were a lot of conflicts that made the characters real and keep the plot moving forward.

But I didn’t like the ending.  It wasn’t bad from a writing sense.  And he doesn’t lose steam from a plot sense.  But I think he betrays the characters a little bit and panders to the audience.  And that was really disappointing. Disappointing because it could have gone to a place that would’ve reached a wider male audience but I’m pretty sure most teen guys, those at least who give it a chance knowing there might be a gay teen in it, might feel a little betrayed by the ending.  Betrayed in the sense that the book made readers (i.e. me) think we had figured everything out but suddenly we get to the ending and blam!  It turns a 90 degree corner and we end exactly where I didn’t see us going.  Or maybe this is me and I missed the signs the whole way.  Ultimately, the ending didn’t sit well with me.

I’d still recommend this book for the writing and story.  I think it’s a good example of how good writing and an honest story can transport readers into a book and they lose themselves to time and responsibility.  Isn’t that what good reading’s supposed be?

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