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cover for Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

'Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.' (source)


Jodie: Belatedly I'm starting to realise that while I saw a lot of tweets praising "Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe", and a lot of people told me it was about gay teens and I would love it, I never read any reviews of it. I guess I wanted to keep away from spoilers or something? In the end this book did not quite match the isolated expectations I'd conjured up from these tweets and conversations. So my first question is what expectations did you come to this book with? What made you so enthusiast about this book (I know we were both super excited about this one) and did this book pan out the way you hoped?

Renay: Here is what I knew about the book going in: it was about two Mexican-American teenagers, struggling with their sexuality in the 1980s. I was told I would love the book, the characters, and I know Ana was like "OTP!!!" over Aristotle and Dante when we discussed the book in order to convince me to read it. I know it won some awards and got a lot of critical attention. This should have been my first clue that I would love the characters, but probably not the plot itself, because people inevitably give awards to the most heartbreaking books of all. I should have read more reviews about it to know what I was going into before I ended up parked on my couch alternately cheering and sobbing over the contents of this story.

I know that being a queer teen is hard. I went through that myself. It was often violent, miserable, and lonely. Back when I was reading more contemporary YA about these characters and issues, I eventually hit a wall with regards to violence. In fact, I can mark the book where I knew I was done: The God Box by Alex Sánchez. I was tired of reading books that would inevitably spiral into violence. I know these books are valuable, because they provide fictional contexts to deal with really horrible scenarios, but I hit a point where they were no longer valuable to me. I wanted uplifting stories, stories with everyday problems, miscommunication, trying to reach out and failing, loneliness, and inevitable reconciliations, whether the reconciliation was romantic or just an acknowledgement that not all relationships are forever. I wanted stories of realization and love that were couched in the language of the everyday, where things might be hard, but they wouldn't necessarily always be life-threatening. I grew tired of reading about young people being beaten and queer characters being killed, and those as overarching plot points. So when I walked into it with this book unexpectedly — ouch.

Jodie:: Oh "The God Box" is rough. That's actually the first book I thought of when I reached Dante's beating. Like you, I know the violence in books like "The God Box" are helpful to some readers. I'm personally just getting kind of tired of hearing these kind books sold as 'lovely' and 'heartwarming' because they end with coming out and a kiss (although a million thanks for not ending them in death authors). "Boy Meets Boy" is heartwarming, and nobody is beaten up y'know? I need book press to manage my expectations better.

This year I read "I'll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip" by John Donovan which is credited with being the first piece of gay YA ever published. In the back of my edition of the book there were a couple of critical essays and one looked at parts of the book which have faced criticism. These areas include the car accident which comes at the end of the book (I won't spoil what the consequences of that accident are unless you want me to, but they are serious). I think Cass had already talked to me briefly about how the car accident is a recurring feature of LGBTQ lit, and how it can act as everything from a punishment for LGBTQ characters (to keep conservative forces off a writers back, or because they were writing in a time when it was inconceivable to believe that LGBTQ stories could end happily) to an unexamined trope which puts some violent "drama" into the lives of these characters.

I also read this great commentary on lesbian and gay stories — 'the girls are never supposed to end up together' right after I finished Donavan's book. Among other smart things it says 'The critics swoon; it’s realistic, they say, so realistic, to depict the struggle of the modern teen...You were never meant to fall in love. Your story ends in tears or it ends in death.'

So, that's the background I had in my head when I was reading this book, and I found myself checking off all the acts of violence LGBTQ characters encountered in "Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe". After the car accident, there's the death of Aristotle's aunt who turns out to have been a lesbian. Aristotle also finds out that his brother is in prison because he beat a transvestite to death. Then there was the beating. And I just… I just kind of wondered why all this stuff was in this book. It certainly didn't feel to me like tropes were being reconfigured, or like violent homophobia was being examined in any way. It felt more like these incidents were being used as something like historical colour and that the beating was almost a throwaway plot point; a very painful mark that had to be hit to highlight the past's homophobia and to push Aristotle to realise how much and exactly how he cares for Dante.

But then, hey there's that happy, walking off into the sunset ending. Except… I feel like I'm supposed to accept that this happy ending makes all the violence and gay-pain tropes necessary. Like, the only way for a gay happy ending to occur is for there to be a lot of pain and strife first. Again, the commentary I linked to above has wise words on this subject: 'The point of your story is not to fall in love. The point of your story is to struggle. Your story begins with a lie and climaxes in a truth and ends with a kiss.' That certainly sounds a lot like the shape of this story. The ending has one kiss and some open ended hope. Is that enough? It doesn't feel like enough. I mean, this ending is a million times better than character death but...

That's me creating the worst dust jacket quote ever.

Renay: I've read that post before: the point of your story is to struggle. Recently, I recommended My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger to a few friends; it was my favorite book for awhile a few years ago. It's a gorgeous, funny, optimistic book, so positive and full of genuine happiness that it's almost unbelievable. I've even heard reviews, both positive and negative, call it that — unbelievable.

So when reading about Aristotle and Dante, and all the things that happen to them and around them, especially the part where the one who was most accepting of himself and his feelings suffered the worst of the emotional and physical pain, I was torn. Isn't there a happy medium between these narratives where young people are beaten and battered emotionally and physically, and the stories like My Most Excellent Year, which are somehow too positive, too hard to believe given the realities of presentation of gender and sexuality in a world determined to force an easy to understand and control binary system of romantic and sexual connection on us? I've been away from contemporary GLBTQ YA for too long to know whether there's more of that middle ground now than there was then, but I really hope so.

I agree with your assessment that the book reads a little like a checklist of GLBTQ violence. We often complain in stories when women are fridged or battered to give the hero an actionable event from which to move into the story, or into some sort of realization about himself, the world, or his relationships. Hasn't this trend of people reaching that realization about their sexuality and their relationship through the physical reactions of bigots toward the people the hero loves become a trope, possibly a pretty harmful one? Of course this happens, and of course difficult life events spur us forward into situations or revelations we might not have reached because of simple comfort and complacency, but it's start to feel predictable. After the car crash, I expected it to happen, and I waited for it, and the book, ultimately, delivered the exact action and reaction I knew it would.

I don't think the ending, however hopeful, makes up for the tropes on display in this book. Not that the author didn't do an amazing job elsewhere, and not that it's not realistic for its time period, its location, and not even that it's unrealistic right now, but GLBTQ YA has been coming up for decades — surely there more historically accurate character arcs to find? Surely there should be space in novels for both the struggle and more pieces of the happy ending?

Jodie: Those reviews you're talking about remind me of the reaction to "Boy Meets Boy". Lots of people loved it, but lots of people also thought the ultra-accepting high-school society in the book was too positive. I have some thoughts about this that are captured best by using other people's words so:

It made me sad — but not really surprised — when I was touring around in 2003 to find that for some people it was a radical notion to have a happy romantic comedy about two boys. Even some older gay readers were critical of the book for not being realistic, to which I would explain: You don’t have to write a book in order to reflect reality. You can also write a book to create reality. Most teen readers, I found, understood this, because they were living their lives to create reality, not merely reflect it.' — David Levithan

94 YA books published in 2013 include LGBT main characters or are about LGBT issues… 1.9% to 2.4% of YA books published in 2013 include LGBT main characters or are about LGBT issues. — Malinda Lo

Every story you hear about llamas is the same. You see it in books: the poor doomed baby llama getting chomped up by its intemperate parent. On television: the massive tide of scaly llamas falling in a great, majestic herd into the sea below. In the movies: bad-ass llamas smoking cigars and painting their scales in jungle camouflage. — Kameron Hurley

The numbers Malinda Lo gathered in 2013 actually represented an improvement in the amount of LGBT YA literature being published, but I think it's clear to see that an improvement doesn't mean the number of LGBT YA books has suddenly skyrocketed. So, we're still in a situation where each LGBT YA book, because there are so few of them, is being held as a representation of the entire young LGBT community's experience. The real life experience of LGBT people is diverse, and often different; as diverse and different as the experience of women or other under-represented groups. However, in narrative terms it's often most loudly portrayed as one of suffering, sadness and violence. And we rightly hear a lot about the terrible things that happen to real LGBT teens because its important for people to be aware that homophobia and violent, homophobic reactions are around.

So, when a book like "Boy Meets Boy", or "My Excellent Year" comes along and says 'there are pockets around the world where gay people can have happy lives free of violence' or 'contemporary genre doesn't have to reflect everyone's exact reality — it can do other things' they're pushing uphill against a really strong, single narrative that people have been taking in and also actively experiencing for a long time. And people find these books unrealistic for a variety of reasons related to the drive of this single narrative. I'm not sure what a good course of action is in the face of such a difficult and multi-faceted situation, but I really like that authors keep trying to write these kinds of stories alongside other LGBT stories.

I also really like what David Levithan says at the end of that piece I quoted above:

'Tragedy and miserablism are no longer prerequisites for writing queer YA, and our literature is much more honest because of that, since tragedy and miserablism aren’t prerequisites for a gay adolescence either (present, certainly — but not prerequisites).'

That bracketed phrase seems to hint at the middle ground you're talking about; a way of writing about the reality of homophobia without it dooming characters that readers care about. I also think we should ask for recs now. Does anyone have YA books about LGBT characters, which fit what Levithan describes above, to rec in the comments?

Renay: It's definitely a complicated problem, and I'm the last one who's going to know how to solve it. I do remember that as a young adult I was often drawn to darker, violent narratives, filled with angst and suffering. There's a place for them, but as you say, it's hard to push back against the single narrative of violence and suffering when any book that's happy or uplifting is automatically more unrealistic because of that happiness and positivity. What does it say, looking specifically at the quote from Levithan, about the lives of the teenagers making these comments to him? Maybe it's simply something that will pass with time, and as society shifts away from so brutally negative and violent towards non-heterosexual kids, we'll start to see more writers like Levithan and Kluger writing stories that managed to find a better happy medium. After all, they could be out there right now — I just quit looking because I got so tired.

My problems with the way this book built its story aren't minor, but I did really like the book itself. It's written beautifully. The narrative reflected Aristotle's reserved, quiet intensity perfectly. He plays everything so close to his chest and so does the way the author unfolds Aristotle's feelings and the past about his family. The family relationships in this book were so rich and deep that it ended up being the most perfect emotional note for me. I love stories where the book isn't about the adults, but that adults are clearly important characters, with their own internal lives. How did you feel about that aspect of the story? Both sets of parents, and how the boys interacted with them?

Jodie: I loved the family relationships in this book. I was so glad to find that the parents were so supportive of their kids. Even though Aristotle's dad struggles to be open the reader, if not Aristotle, can tell he loves his son so much. And Aristotle's mother was just wonderful. And when Aristotle's dad opens up to his son... Just, everything about this aspect of the book was wonderful for me.

I also really enjoyed seeing little bits of the parent's own lives and thought the way the dads began to bond was so understated and special. Like you said, it's nice when parents or even slightly older family members are important and separate from their kids. It's not required in all YA ever — I want to clarify that because there's kind of a backlash going on right now against adult readers saying they like rounded adult characters and strong inter-generational relationships in YA. And I get it, YA is not about adults, some adults are terrible and even if they have nice parents it is totally natural for kids to break away from those parents. I just like to see interesting adult characters in some YA stories.

Maybe this is just me, but when you found out Dante's mother was pregnant were you worried Dante's mother would die? I was SO worried she'd die and that this would be the terrible calamity that brought everyone together at the end of the book. The predominance of Dead Mothers Everywhere makes me so suspicious . And she didn't. And it was great!

Renay: IT NEVER OCCURRED TO ME and I'm glad. ;___; This book was upsetting enough without me worrying about the death of parents on top of everything else. Probably this was a function of form, because the book itself is very slim. A plot twist like that would have taken some time to follow through on, and I don't start predicting horrible things unless the potential for them happens much earlier and there's very obviously space left in the book. Maybe if I had read this as a ebook (EBOOKS CAN BE SO MISLEADING).

I understand why there might be backlash, but I think having some books with complicated adult characters is a good thing. As a teenager, I had several adults who were incredibly important to me. Sometimes they were my parents and sometimes they were just other people who weren't necessarily authority figures, but rather adults who were as close to peers as you can get with the power imbalance of age as a teenager. Possibly that's why I loved Aristotle's dad so much. You can seem them with the gulf between them, and you watch them grow closer, and it's so rewarding. The tidal flow of our relationships with our parents is incredibly important and I love seeing books address it.

I had a breakdown with Dante's mom and Aristotle in the hospital. I was like "NOPE CANNOT HANDLE." That's when I know this book was going to shred my emotions into tiny pieces with the adult characterization. AND IT DID.

Jodie: Having been out of the book's world for a little while now I think this may have been one of those 'in the moment' books for me. When I was reading it I was really into the story emotionally and then the ending was perfection. Now though, all I really feel of it is that perfect ending. There aren't very many other sharp moments that have dug into my memory and heart, even though I know there were some beautifully composed portions (the desert scenes). I'm mostly left with that ending and the images of swimming.

I feel like you might have retained more of an emotional connection with the book than me? If yes do you want to talk about some of your favourite moments before we wrap up?

Renay: I think it says something that most of my emotional memories of this book involve the parts and Aristotle, rather than Aristotle and Dante. The scene where Aristotle is sick and his father cares for him, the aforementioned scene in the hospital, the scene where his mother finally tells him the truth about the past all stand out to me. The core emotional points between Aristotle and Dante have, unfortunately, faded. Perhaps that's just what this book is giving me at this time in my life; I read it as an adult and therefore find those scenes most touching and rewarding as far as characterization goes. Although, it does make me wonder how my reading would change if I decided to read it again one day — would I find something different?

I agree with your assessment, though, about it being a "moment" book. It's so slim, even though the emotions pack a big punch at the time, it suffered the same way short stories suffer for me...I lose them after the telling of it all.

Even so, I think this is definitely deserving of the Printz Honor it picked up and now I'm interested in the adult novels Sáenz has written. :)

Jodie: Yes, definitely interested in seeing what else he can do. I think he's a writer who squarely hits emotional notes and has a great understanding of family love. And I've been meaning to read "Last Night I Sang to the Monster" for yonks.

Anyway, thanks for talking about this book with me. I'm looking forward to seeing whether other people will have things to say in the comments. I know this is our last read-along of a book by a male author for a while but hopefully we'll get together for other co-reads in 2014?

Renay: Absolutely! :D

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