Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

This must not be my month for book club picks. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz, is an American Book Award winner, but I just couldn't get behind it. I'm not a big fan of this book. At first, I thought it was merely a problem of the dialogue coming off too choppy. I know the author is trying to convey the mind and thought-processes of teenage boys, but the interactions between these two boys felt like watching a ping pong match. Brief comment by one. Brief comment by the other. Back to the first. Back to the other. Sadly, neither one ever seemed to really score any points in my book.

Aristotle introduces himself to the reader at the outset with three telling, choppy, sentences: "I was fifteen. I was bored. I was miserable." He heads off to kill the day by spending some time at the pool, where he ends up meeting Dante, the boy whose friendship eventually changes his life. Both Aristotle and Dante (who laugh at the irony of their both sharing such unusual names) are equally uncomfortable in social situations and lack a real friend base. The rest of the novel waxes on and on with lengthy discussions of anger and boredom and the inability to assess where they stand with one another.

Aristotle is comfortable with his mother, but distant from his father, who suffers from some sort of post-traumatic stress after being in war and is very tight-lipped around his son. He is also filled with anger over the silence surrounding the loss of his older brother, who was imprisoned at the tender age of fifteen (for something which Aristotle, himself, will encounter toward the end of the book). There's a whole lot of communication breakdown in this novel and yet the message is meant to convey a sense of coming up with the answer to the real meaning of life and love and the freedom a person should have to choose their own path in pursuit of love.

I didn't love the writing. I didn't fall in love with the characters. I didn't care for the story line progression and couldn't really agree with the overall message the book is trying to push. Do these two characters really have to embrace each other in order to "become men?" That's what the reader is encouraged to believe. The only thing I really appreciated in the book was a glimpse at some teens who feel affectionate and loving toward their parents. Otherwise, I wish I had passed on this month's selection.

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