Squeezing homophobia, racism, sexism, grief, a flawed education system, a (non-COVID) pandemic, the navigation of relationships, and the exploration of sexuality into one book sounds like an impossible task. Somehow, Benjamin Alire Sáenz manages to touch upon all of these subjects in his latest novel, “Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World.” In doing so, he tastefully creates a multidimensional narrative worthy of every reader’s time.
The book picks up where its critically acclaimed prequel “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” left off. At the end of the first novel, teenager Aristotle Mendoza comes to terms with his sexuality and acknowledges his love for Dante Quintana. Now, in addition to the many pressures of being a high school student, Ari must navigate a queer relationship in a landscape that attempts to invalidate his very existence — late 1980s Texas.
Getting invested in this novel takes a bit of patience. The story is slow to start, with roughly one hundred pages of Ari engaging in mundane conversations and ruminating over repetitive thoughts. The pace accelerates, however, when Ari and Dante go on a camping trip together. Here, Sáenz settles into the flow of the narrative. Conversations grow deeper, reflecting the development and maturation of the young men. The language used to describe the forest landscape is beautifully playful and vivid. In the wilderness, Ari and Dante are able to love each other without fear of being seen. The moments they share are euphoric, sweet enough to make any reader smile.
One of Sáenz’ greatest accomplishments in this novel is capturing the frantic inner monologue of a high school student. Written in first person, the narrative gives readers access to Ari’s stream of consciousness, where emotions fluctuate from anger to insecurity, excitement to fear. His thoughts are vulnerable and relatable, allowing readers to forge a connection even if they don’t share his identity as a gay, Mexican-American man.
This intimate glimpse into Ari’s thoughts also brings this sequel into the realm of the sexual. As his relationship with Dante progresses beyond witty banter, cuddles, and kisses, Ari’s mind turns to sexual desires. This has two effects: First, it normalizes Ari as just another teenage boy. Despite feeling like an outcast, at the end of the day, Ari’s urges match those of his high school peers with raging hormones. Second, Sáenz shares a message that shame should not accompany sexual feelings. In the beginning of the novel, Ari is embarrassed whenever one of these thoughts arises. But soon enough, Ari realizes that those feelings are a natural extension of his love for Dante and that he should never be ashamed of them.
This novel could easily be a depressing tale about a young man facing relentless oppression as a member of multiple minority communities. Instead, Sáenz has written a heartwarming story that serves as a beacon of hope for anyone who struggles to find a sense of belonging. There are still moments of sorrow — Ari loses a close family member, watches as AIDS takes the lives of thousands, and faces the homophobia of a brother in prison for murdering a trans woman. Nevertheless, the joy outweighs the melancholy.
Much of the joy in this novel stems from acceptance. Readers of BGLTQ literature are accustomed to characters being rejected by friends and family after coming out. Ari and Dante’s parents, however, break this tradition by wholeheartedly accepting their sons’ sexuality. They treat each boy as one of their own, offer support when tensions arise in their relationship, and share a bounty of life lessons. Ari is also embraced by friends at school who create a safe environment in which he can discover his identity and his voice. Let this be a reminder of the power of open-mindedness. When the weight of the world feels like too much to bear, having just one person who offers support can make all the difference.
“Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World” features the fragility of life and love. There are moments when the bonds between Ari and his friends, lover, and parents feel unbreakable, and there are moments when these relationships are torn apart. By the end of the novel, readers are guaranteed to reach for their phones and call their loved ones.
—Staff writer Nina M. Foster can be reached at email@example.com.