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Literature / Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

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A coming of age novel by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe takes place in El Paso, Texas in 1987 and follows the life of 15 year old Aristotle Mendoza whose life changes when he meets Dante Quintana.

Ari is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

The novel is told from Ari's point of view and focuses largely on his emotional struggles as he tries to figure out who his father was before Vietnam left him closed off, who his brother is now that his family refuses to acknowledge his existence, and who he is as someone who's not quite a boy and not quite a man.

The book was nominated for a Printz Award in 2013. A sequel, Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World, was released in October 2021. A film adaptation starring newcomers Max Pelayo and Reese Gonzales as the respective titular characters premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Tropes of the Universe:

  • Aloof Big Brother: Mostly because he's in prison, but the rest of the family refuses to acknowledge his existence. Ari can't even remember what he looks like.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Considering that Dante has said he only enjoys kissing girls when picturing them as boys, that he wants to marry a man, and that he'll never fall in love with a girl, he's probably completely gay. Ari, on the other hand, had a crush on Iliana. It doesn’t last that long though, and Ari’s orientations aren’t focused on that much. Ari doesn't express much sexual desire towards anyone, thinking and dreaming about kissing rather than anything sexual, in fact, he doesn't even masturbate. With the exception of one or two comments, Ari could be interpreted as asexual and romantically attached to men, and possibly others.
  • Angst: Ari's inner monologue is full of it. He is clearly dealing negatively with his strained relationship with his parents and the fact nobody talks about his brother.
  • Coming of Age Story: The story focuses on Ari as he comes to gripes with his sexuality, his emotional issues and his relationship with his parents.
  • Coming-Out Story: A nice change from most LGBT realistic fiction in that it's not the entire focus of the story, but still a part of Ari and Dante's character arcs without being sidelined.
  • Everyone Can See It: Both Ari and Dante's parents gently suggest that their sons may be in love with each other.
  • Foreshadowing: When Dante returns from Chicago, he proposes new rules for himself and Ari, one of which being that Ari has to defend him if anyone else starts targetting Dante with homophobic comments. When Dante actually is a victim of a hate crime, Ari decides to beat one of the men who attacked him in retaliation.
  • Gayngst: Even after coming out to Ari, Dante is still wary and ashamed of being gay, afraid of coming out of his parents and hoping that this would be easier if their next child was straight. Of course, it's also the 80s, which was considerable more homophobic.
  • The Ghost: Bernardo, Ari's brother. It is mentioned that there are no pictures of him and he is not mentioned. Ari can't even remember exactly what he looks like. While he doesn't show up in person, and in fact apparently refuses to be visited in prison, Ari finally learns what he looked like when his mother allows him to see pictures of him.
  • Green-Eyed Epiphany: Among other reasons, including his parents' intervention, Ari realizes he has feelings for Dante after getting jealous over his relationship with Daniel.
  • Homophobic Hate Crime: Dante is attacked and hospitalized by 4 men for being caught kissing another man. That said, he is hospitalized, but survives, and is recovered by the end of the book, physically, but still emotionally fragile.
  • I Owe You My Life: Dante after Ari saves him from getting hit by a car.
  • Locked Out of the Loop: One of the issues about his brother's entire existence being ignored to Ari is that he never got to learn even what exactly happened. During the period where Bernardo was in trial and Ari's mother subsequent breakdown he was left to the care of his aunt Ophelia, and never got to learn anything about it.
  • It Meant Something to Me: Dante about their Test Kiss.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: The reason for Bernardo's imprisonment is revealed to be because he murdered a prostitute this way.
  • Open-Minded Parent: Both Ari and Dante's parents are cool with them being gay, and even like the idea of the boys dating.
  • Parents as People: Ari loves and hates his parents. While he acknowledges they're providing and loving, they're also distant in certain ways, his father in particular has a hard time communicating with him, due to PTSD from Vietnam, despite Ari wanting to learn more about him. His mother is also the main emotional support Ari has in his life, but he hates that she acts like his brother doesn't exists. He eventually gets to mutually open up with them after learning how damaging Bernardo's sentencing hit the family.
  • Practice Kiss: Dante and Ari share one at Dante's suggestion, ostensibly as an experiment because neither of them have kissed boys before. Really, though, it's more of a Test Kiss disguised as a practice kiss, since Dante reveals that he had felt something from it, and Ari firmly denies feeling any sparks.
  • Prefers Going Barefoot: A noted trait of Dante's, finding the most implausible of excuses to get rid of his shoes and go around either in socks or barefoot.
  • Relationship Upgrade: Ari and Dante get one after finally confessing their feelings for each other during a final trip to the desert.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: When Dante gets attacked by 4 men and hospitalized, a rage-blind Ari figures out who they are by threatening Daniel and beats one of them to a pulp. That said, his parents stop this after the very first one.
  • Shadow Archetype: Although he doesn't appear, Bernardo is one to Ari. Both seem to be good people at heart, or at least Bernardo was at some point, but have deep anger issues that they don't deal with. Bernardo eventually committed two murders due to his complete lack of self-control, one of which was a tranvestite prostitute in a hate crime. Ari's anger is much more controlled, but there are many moments where it bubbles to the surface, with the specific moment where he attacks a man who attacked Dante bringing back memories of Bernardo to their mother. It's easy to interpret Bernardo as what Ari could have become without Dante.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Ari's father is a Vietnam War veteran who refuses to speak about his experience in the war and is clearly traumatized by it. He finally opens up to his son towards the end of the novel.
  • Shipper on Deck: Both Ari and Dante's parents are on board with the Ari/Dante ship. Hell, Ari's parents are the ones that gently push him into realizing his feelings for Dante.
  • Transparent Closet: Ari, to the point where his own parents realize he's in love with Dante before he does, and have to literally verbally point it out to him.
  • Unperson: One of the main conflicts of the story is how Ari's brother has been completely erased from the family's memories after he was arrested, with his parents and sisters refusing to talk about him. He learns that it is not the shame, but rather the hurt that caused it, with his mom having a breakdown when Bernardo was arrested and couldn't bear to see him. Once that comes to the surface, they manage to talk about him, and slowly re-incorporate his memory into their lives.
  • Victorious Childhood Friend: Dante.
  • Visual Development: Ari changes a lot during the middle of the novel. While Dante is in Chicago for almost a year, Ari takes on weight lifting and jogging, becoming toned over the course of the year and letting his hair grow a bit more. Meanwhile, by the time Dante returns from Chicago, he has cut his hair shorter and grown to be taller than Ari, as well as being described as losing a lot of boyishness for a more grown-up look. This change represents how much they changed when they were apart and how they've become closer to the end of their youth and of adulthood.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Gina and Ari are constantly exchanging barbs and comments to each other. That said, they do grow into genuine friends, despite Ari's difficulty in admitting it, and she even helps him a couple times.