“One summer night I fell asleep, hoping the world would be different when I woke.” (Saenz Pg.1). You kow a book is going to change your life when its first line makes you feel more understood than anything or anyone has done in your entire life.
This book. This book. Benjamin Alire Saenz has confronted the tumult that are our teenage years with such a beautifully honest and tender friendship between Aristotle and Dante, our main characters. The book begins with an unlikely friendship between Ari and Dante and slowly morphs into an exploration of relationships with parents, of love, of loneliness, and of friendships so intimate, they make you question who you are.
Aristotle is, well, he is a complicated person. He is lonely, he is lost, he is insecure, he is angry, he struggles to express himself, and is still trying to find, as he likes to put it, “all the secrets of the universe”. He is tired of all the silence about his brother who is in prison. “I caught myself whispering over and over again, ‘my brother is in prison, my brother is in prison, my brother is in prison.’ Words could be like food—they felt like something in your mouth. They tasted like something, ‘My brother is in prison.’ Those words tasted bitter.” (Saenz Pg97).
Dante, on the other hand, is the most open-hearted, happy and unabashed person Ari has had the chance of meeting. He knows why birds exist, “Birds exist to teach us things about the sky.”(Saenz Pg 54). He can get along with just about anybody and always knows the right thing to say. He cries when he feels sad, he laughs when he is happy, and most of all, he always speaks what he feels, never caring what others think. He is, as Ari likes to put it, “uncensored”.
Ari has never met a guy like Dante. In fact, in his opinion, all teenage guys are “disgusting”. But in Dante he meets an exception to the rule: “And there wasn’t anything mean about him. I didn’t understand how you could live in a mean world and not have any of the meanness rub off on you.” (Saenz Pg 19). Ari, who has never had a real friend before and is still learning to navigate being one while Dante has no problems being Ari’s best friend.
The book also focuses on the relationship between Ari and his parents, as well as the parent-child relationship in general. It shows the importance of expression, it shows how secrets can break the strongest of bonds, especially within a family. We see the way secrets threaten to taint Ari’s relationship with his parents and the mistakes parents can make in a bid to protect their children, in the most honest and raw way possible.
The book transformed the way i looked at friendships and forever changed their meaning. Ari and Dante’s friendship is the purest one i have ever come across, so when life threatened to come in its way, the fear i felt was palpable. Through their friendship Saenz portrays the complicated, painful, yet beautiful experience that is discovering one’s sexuality. He has created characters so vivid, that by the time the book ended, i felt like i had grown with the characters. That whatever Ari and Dante had gone through, was somehow a part of my journey too. Not just Ari and Dante, but their parents too, are characters that all the other new characters i will ever come across will have to compete against.
The book is written in first person, from the point of view of Ari, which definitely played an important role in helping me connect with him. It is divided into five small parts which each begin with a small quote or a single, sneakily prophetic line that is bound to get you thinking. In each part, the tension that ties the various threads of the story together builds up even more and Saenz’s ability to twist the plot at just the right time is bound to keep you hooked.
The book drew me in with Saenz’s incredibly unique writing style. His writing is so profoundly impactful in it’s simplicity that it is impossible to not marvel over the power of words at least once while reading it. “My mother and father held hands. I wondered what it was like to hold someone’s hand. I bet you could sometimes find all of the mysteries of the universe in someone’s hand.” (Saenz Pg 140). The emotional depth that underlies the uncomplicated sentences that he weaves together always leaves me stunned. The resonance of his writing makes the journey that Ari and Dante make to discover their true selves, so much more meaningful.
This masterpiece will forever be one of my favourites and to anyone is struggling to find their place in the world, or more importantly, within themselves, this book is meant for you.
Moreover, who doesn’t want to find all the secrets of the universe?