Staff Picks: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

cover of aristotle and dante discover the secrets of the universePicked by Michelle N.

It’s 1987 and 15-year-old Aristotle Mendoza has a whole summer ahead of him, with all the freedom and potential for adventure and boredom that that implies. He needs to get away from the house one fateful, stifling day, so he heads for the public swimming pool. He doesn’t know how to swim, but he can still splash around and cool off. As it turns out, there’s another bored 15-year-old there—his name is Dante, and he offers to teach Ari to swim. Ari’s not sure why he takes Dante up on this odd offer, but he does.

Aside from bonding over their similarly odd names, the two couldn’t be more different. Ari is a working-class kid, the youngest of four, though his oldest brother went to prison when Ari was only 4 years old and both of his sisters grew up and left the house years ago. His Vietnam-veteran dad is withdrawn and uncommunicative, and his mom pushes him to succeed. In response to all this, Ari has developed an uncaring, tough-guy exterior and is completely out of touch with his own tremendous store of pent-up anger and sadness.

Dante, on the other hand, wears his enthusiasms and admittedly odd thoughts and points of view on his sleeve. The only child of affectionate, well-to-do parents, he’s somewhere between happy-go-lucky and neurotic. He’s also as close to openly gay as a teenager can be in El Paso, Texas in 1987.

The two accept and even enjoy each other’s differences, and they make each other laugh. Soon they develop a friendship that can survive anything… even Ari saving Dante’s life. But sooner or later Ari is going to have to figure out who he is and who he wants to be, and what that means for him and Dante.

If you can possibly get your hands on a copy of the audiobook version of this, do (pro tip: you can download it from us for free). Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lively and nuanced reading makes an already-fantastic story spring to life.