In Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, two boys 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 hiding 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 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.
First published: October 2021
As long time followers of this blog might now, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012) is one of my all-time favourite books. So, you can imagine how excited I was to read its long awaited sequel: Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World. I wasn’t just excited, though; I was also a little apprehensive. To me, Ari and Dante #1 is a near perfect book, and it’s also very clearly written as a standalone novel. I was scared that the sequel wasn’t going to live up to the first book and that I would be disappointed. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened.
Ari and Dante #2 picks up right where the first book left off, which surprised me. I had expected there to have been a bit of a time jump, but we find Ari and Dante in the summer before the start of their senior year of high school. This is a nice parallel to the start of the first book, where Ari and Dante meet for the first time during summer. Despite my surprise, I enjoyed this setting, and I liked reading about how Ari tried to get used to the idea of being gay and to being Dante’s boyfriend. This book takes place in 1988, in the midst of the AIDS crisis, which provides an interesting (and heartwrenching) backdrop to Ari’s coming of age story and his search for his own identity.
So far, so good, but as the story progressed, I started to get a bit restless and dissatisfied. As is often the case with Sáenz’s novels, the story is told through (very) short chapters that jump between different situations. It always takes me some time to get settled into this way of storytelling, but once I do, I usually end up loving it. This time, however, I never really got settled. Where Ari and Dante #1 seemed to flow organically and beautifully, this book felt rather disorganised and also had pacing issues. The first 200 pages were meandering, and when important plot points did start to happen, they felt rushed. Overall, this book felt too long, which is not something I thought I’d ever say about a Sáenz book.
Although I liked reading about Ari’s journey towards becoming a man (to use some of the novel’s own terminology), and I loved being reunited with his and Dante’s families, I kept thinking that I’d rather have read a new story. I think this story, about two gay boys navigating their new relationship in the South of America in the 1980s, would’ve been able to shine much more if it hadn’t been confined to the constraints that the first book necessarily imposes on the story and the characters. The story struggles with those constraints as well, as their seemed to be some inconsistencies. While Ari sometimes felt like a bit of a different character, that was even more true for Dante. I didn’t like Dante in this book, which made me sad, because he’s such a wonderful, balanced character in the first book. Here, he felt entitled and selfish, and like a bit of a brat, with none of the balance.
Dante also got a lot less page time in this book, which is strange, since his name is in the title and the story is supposedly about him and Ari. Instead, Ari makes some new (and old) friends that feature heavily in the story. Although I did like these characters, I didn’t feel like they warranted this much attention. Again, they would have fit much better in a new story, that didn’t have certain expectations attached to it already. I would’ve loved to have read more about Cassandra, for example, but not in a story about Ari and Dante.
In his Acknowledgments, Sáenz mentions that Ari and Dante was meant to have been a standalone novel, but that over time, he started to grow more and more dissatisfied with how he had told that story, which is why he started writing the second book. He also talks about how Ari and Dante #2 was by far the book that was the hardest for him to write and that it took him five years to write it. It seems like this book is filled with the things Sáenz would have done differently if he could write the first book again, and I don’t think that makes for a very good sequel.
Personally, I think that this book adds very little to the story of Ari and Dante, and I also think the difficulties Sáenz had during the writing process shine through in the end result. The dialogues aren’t as organic and effortless as they are in his other books and the story feels fragmented. Furthermore, the biggest plot point of the book feels cruel and unnecessary and like it was only added for shock value and because something needed to happen. Up until that point, I was actually enjoying the book quite a bit, but that plot point ruined the book for me. I also felt like the ending of the book was rushed and didn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the story.
All in all, I’m very conflicted about this book. My review focuses mostly on the aspects I didn’t like, but even when it’s not at its best, Sáenz’s writing is still pretty great. There were some interesting conversations that Ari had with his parents and some of his teachers that I loved, and I also enjoyed the fact that Ari finds closure in some parts of his life that were left wide open in the first book (although I didn’t mind it then). But a day after finishing it, what lingers is the disappointment.