"Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe" is a tough book for me to review.
It's narrated by Aristotle ("Ari"). He is a difficult, inscrutable teenager. He takes pride in his aloofness. His thoughts are short. He lives in El Paso. He has bad dreams. His brother is in prison. His father was in the war. His parents don't talk about either thing. He doesn't have any friends. This doesn't bother him. He doesn't like other people.
And on and on and on like that. At the beginning of the book, the narrative was so choppy and abrupt, that I wanted to pull out my hair. The problem is, at the beginning, I couldn't see what the author, Benjamin Alire Saenz, was doing. I couldn't know that as Ari's mind was opened through his friendship with Dante, his sentences would grow a little less third-graderish.
Dante and Ari meet one day when Ari goes to the neighborhood pool. He can't swim, but he's taught himself to float. (It's a metaphor thing: he doesn't know how to move elegantly through life, but just enough to survive)
Anyway, a boy announces that he would teach Ari to swim. The boy's name is Dante, and he's sort of the anti-Ari. He has a warm and chatty, almost collegial relationship with his parents; he reads books, and he's an artist. So he teaches Ari to swim. If we extend the metaphor, he teaches Ari how to move through life, instead of just surviving it.
The two become best friends. They spend most of the summer together, playing games, reading, talking, just bonding the way two awkward teenaged boys do.
One day, Dante goes out into the road to save a dying bird, and Ari leaps into traffic to push him out of a speeding car's path. Ari's messed-up--two shattered legs, a broken arm, and months of healing and physical therapy ahead of him.
Dante's father takes a one-year guest professorship at the University of Chicago, so their family moves away. Dante is a great letter-writer. He has adventures in Chicago, riding the train, going to parties, drinking, smoking weed, kissing girls, and discovering he'd rather be kissing boys.
When Dante and his family move back to El Paso, it takes awhile for their friendship to re-synch. There are some awkward moments when Dante admits to Ari that he's gay, and that he, Dante, is in love with his best friend, Ari. There's an awkward kiss that Ari rebuffs.
As the book final chapters unfold, Ari finally learns why his brother is in prison. His dad finally describes his Vietnam war experiences. Walls crumble, until the ending, which I won't mention, except to say that it didn't feel right to me.
"Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe" has been widely praised, and I admit that there are some good observations here on how teenaged boys think and feel. My biggest problem is with Aristotle. As a narrator, he's absolutely tedious. He's telling his own story, and I couldn't stand him. Seriously, if life is that bad and that boring, and you are that isolated, put-upon, and world-weary, please just jump in front of a speeding train, and put yourself out of my misery.
The ending bothered me, too. It was like reading that 2+2=4 for 249 pages, then in the last six pages, suddenly 2+2= table salt. It just made no sense that Ari narrates us through essentially a year and a half of his life, then does something he's never thought, felt, said, etc. We were there. We've witnessed his thinking! We've been inside his head the whole time!
This novel has received critical acclaim, and was recommended to me by a number of friends. I wanted to love it the way they did.
Instead, here's how it worked-out with "Aristotle and Dante" and me. When Ari was in the hospital, Dante brought him "War and Peace" and "The Grapes of Wrath." Shortly after that, Ari mentions that he wanted to read all of Hemingway's works, and that Dante insisted on reading "The Sun Also Rises" aloud to him. At this point in my reading, I bookmarked "A&D," went to the Kindle Store, and downloaded those three books. It was a toss-up whether I would finish "Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe", or put it down, and start "The Sun Also Rises." I chose to finish "Aristotle and Dante."
I'm glad. The book did get better as it moved along, despite Ari being a horribly uninteresting narrator. It just felt like there was a long, slow character study in progress, then someone who had only skimmed parts of the book wrote the ending. There was nothing organic about it, no seamless flow.
I'm always glad when people enjoy a book, and a lot of people have loved this one. I just wish I'd had the same experience. I'm grateful for one thing, though: I've been meaning to reread "The Sun Also Rises" for ages, and "A&D" had me sufficiently unengrossed that I could leave and download it, and not feel the slightest bit guilty.