Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Let me get my confusion out of the way as to why this book continues to end up shelved with Fantasy and Science Fiction when it lacks the necessary elements of both. (And, yes, I wholly admit I probably wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise. I rarely venture out of my comfort zone within the YA category without a justifiable reason) For the record, the word “Universe” in the title is insufficient to slide a book into a section.

That said, it’s beautifully written and deals with the emotional construction (destruction?) of a growing adolescent in a striking manner I’ve never encountered before. At no point does Ari come across as anything more than he is: a young man confronted with an overwhelming load of input and no coping skills to sort them into manageable pieces. He’s both distant and relatable at the same moment. It’s a human presentation that so rarely comes across in the genre. And not something that can be said the same for Dante, unfortunately. (Though, being a secondary character, I suppose there’s some leeway permitted)

While touching, the families involved with both sides of the emotional equation are simply too good to be true. They understand – and overlook – everything required for Ari and Dante to evolve as young men. There’s no judgment or pushback. And there are no repercussions or punishment for any of the actions, even those that should justifiably require the intervention of a parental figure. (They have no problem with underage drinking or drug use?) Instead of establishing a boundary as authority figures, they transform into friends, creating an unrealistic portrait, particularly for the novel’s decade. (Perhaps that’s the fantasy element?) I have no problem with parents accepting homosexual children, but they accept EVERYTHING their sons do without a problem. They’ve abandoned their roles as role models and parents, behaving as the “friendly parent” that runs rampant among Millennials these days. It’s unrealistic and too good to be true. And it destroys the image of the late 80s that Mr. Saenz has tried to construct.

Matters of mental health and gender exploration are so often handled with kid gloves. But there’s a gritty reality to them. Presenting such in a framework of bubblewrap and sweetness does the movements no favors.

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