Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

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Reviewed by Alexandra Someillan

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHERS: In Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, two boys in a border town fell in love. Now, they must discover what it means to stay in love and build a relationship in a world that seems to challenge their very existence.

Ari has spent all of high school burying who he really is, staying silent and invisible. He expected his senior year to be the same. But something in him cracked open when he fell in love with Dante, and he can’t go back. Suddenly he finds himself reaching out to new friends, standing up to bullies of all kinds, and making his voice heard. And, always, there is Dante, dreamy, witty Dante, who can get on Ari’s nerves and fill him with desire all at once.

The boys are determined to forge a path for themselves in a world that doesn’t understand them. But when Ari is faced with a shocking loss, he’ll have to fight like never before to create a life that is truthfully, joyfully his own.

MY TWO CENTS: After reading this book, I realized that this story is one of the sweetest and most heartwarming slice-of-life novels I have ever read. Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World describes the magic of falling in love for the first time– how terrifying and beautiful it is at the same time. In the first book, Dante opened up Aristotle’s eyes and made him face the truth about himself. Aristotle began to fall in love with Dante, but he still had difficulty opening himself up to others. In this novel, Aristotle’s love for Dante shakes up his whole universe and makes him realize that he shouldn’t shut off the people who love him.

Aristotle learns to open himself up to others along the way, and he makes lifelong friends who help him realize he was never truly alone. Dante, his family, and friends help Aristotle face the demons inside him that have been tucked away for a long time. They also help Aristotle get through one of the most significant life-altering moments of his life. I loved reading about these characters because they reminded me how life is about living it with the people you love. How Ari’s friends and family help him along the way is my favorite thing about this book because they are the exact kind of people anyone would be lucky to have in their life. The people who rally around Aristotle are the people you would want in your life forever.

In the first novel, the reader gets to know all the facets of Dante, but in this novel, he takes a bit of a backseat to other characters. Even though I loved the other characters in the book, I wanted more of Dante, especially since he goes through his life changes in this book and is the impetus for why Aristotle has changed so dramatically.

Besides Aristotle trying to find himself again, he also deals with the tumultuous world in the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic. Being a kid during the eighties and early nineties, I remember the devastation of this virus, but I never realized how much of a cultural impact it had on the entire world. Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Water of the World was the first book I read that eloquently describes the AIDS crisis and how the characters struggle with it and question their own identity in a world that hates who they love.

There are also thought-provoking discussions about what it means to be queer in a heteronormative society, especially the Latine culture’s reluctance to accept members of the LGBTQ community. The characters also deal with racism; the book perfectly analyzes the meaning of racism and delves into what makes someone racist. I enjoyed how the book made me think about serious issues and why people are the way they are. However, what I love most about this novel is its beautiful message — that learning how to love again could save us from ourselves.

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TEACHING TIPS: Since Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World takes place during the AIDS epidemic, this would be an excellent opportunity to teach about the history of AIDS and how it has influenced society, then and now.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from his website): Benjamin Alire Sáenz (born 16 August 1954) is an award-winning American poet, novelist and writer of children’s books. He was born at Old Picacho, New Mexico, the fourth of seven children, and was raised on a small farm near Mesilla, New Mexico. He graduated from Las Cruces High School in 1972. That fall, he entered St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, Colorado where he received a B.A. degree in Humanities and Philosophy in 1977. He studied Theology at the University of Louvain in Leuven, Belgium from 1977 to 1981. He was a priest for a few years in El Paso, Texas before leaving the order.

In 1985, he returned to school, and studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Texas at El Paso where he earned an M.A. degree in Creative Writing. He then spent a year at the University of Iowa as a PhD student in American Literature. A year later, he was awarded a Wallace E. Stegner fellowship. While at Stanford University under the guidance of Denise Levertov, he completed his first book of poems, Calendar of Dust, which won an American Book Award in 1992. He entered the Ph.D. program at Stanford and continued his studies for two more years. Before completing his Ph.D., he moved back to the border and began teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso in the bilingual MFA program.

His first novel, Carry Me Like Water, was a saga that brought together the Victorian novel and the Latin American tradition of magic realism and received much critical attention.

In The Book of What Remains (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), his fifth book of poems, he writes to the core truth of life’s ever-shifting memories. Set along the Mexican border, the contrast between the desert’s austere beauty and the brutality of border politics mirrors humanity’s capacity for both generosity and cruelty.

In 2005, he curated a show of photographs by Julian Cardona.

He lives and works in El Paso, Texas.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Alexandra Someillan is a freelance book reviewer and teacher who lives in Miami, FL. She has written for Frolic Media, where she has raved about her favorite Latinx romances. Currently, she has been accepted in the Las Musas mentorship and is working on her Latinx contemporary novel with Nina Moreno. Usually, you can find Alexandra obsessing over nineties pop culture and eating too many pastelitos.

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