79 pages • 2 hours readBenjamin Alire Sáenz
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Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World by Benjamin Alire Sáenz is a young adult romance novel published in 2021 by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers. The book is a New York Times best seller, and its accompanying audiobook performed by musician and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda received a Grammy nomination in the category of Best Audio Book, Narration & Storytelling Recording. This is the second installment in the Aristotle and Dante series. The first book in the series, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, was published and met with critical acclaim in 2012. The film adaptation of the first novel was written and directed by Aitch Alberto and released in the fall of 2022.
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Set in El Paso, Texas in the late 1980s, the novel follows Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza and Dante Quintana; they are both Latino, 17 years old, and in their final year of high school. Though they have been close friends for over a year, Ari and Dante embark on a journey as a romantic couple at the outset of the novel. Thus begins a period in which Ari spends much of his free time thinking about Dante, deeply captivated by the boy and experiencing feelings of sexual desire for the first time in his life. Ari wants badly to go away with Dante but also feels somewhat ashamed of his sexual urges. To get a hold on his many-layered thoughts and feelings, Ari starts a daily journal. In each entry, he addresses Dante (as in, “Dear Dante”) to convince himself that his words are worth writing. The practice of writing is cathartic as well as a useful tool for Ari in mapping out his future by way of examining his inner life.
Also in the throes of a new beginning are Ari and Dante’s parents—Lilliana “Lilly” and Jaime Mendoza, and Soledad and Sam Quintana—who are supportive of their sons but unsure of how best to help them and also deeply concerned for their safety. In addition, the Quintanas are expecting a child, one whom Dante is hopeful will be a boy.
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As the summer winds down, Lilly suggests that Ari and Dante go away on a camping trip before school. Ari recognizes the suggestion as an opportunity to be alone with Dante and feels grateful for his understanding mother. On the road, the boys meet a woman named Emma who owns a small art gallery. Upon admiring one of the paintings, they learn that Emma’s son was a gay man who died of AIDS.
On the camping trip, where they are away from civilization and free to roam in the wilderness, Dante and Ari can finally be themselves. On the first night of the trip, Dante and Ari have sex for the first time. The next morning, Ari feels like a completely different person, knowing that he is forever changed by having been intimate with Dante. On the way home, they stop by Emma’s gallery, where she gifts them her son’s painting and tells them that they are important and valued. Dante and Ari have a picture-perfect trip and return to their parents feeling happy and fulfilled.
Toward the end of summer, Ari joins his mother to give their condolences to the Ortega family, whose eldest son dies of AIDS. At the Ortega’s, Ari gets into an intense argument with a grieving Cassandra Ortega, with whom he has always had a mutually tense relationship. Once Ari tells her he is gay, their relationship takes a major turn. Cassandra vows to be a loyal and supportive friend to Ari.
Before the summer closes out, Ari decides to finally befriend Gina Navarro and Susie Byrd, who have been trying to get close to him for years. He invites the girls over to his house for lunch and, with the support of his mother and Dante, tells them he is gay. The girls are supportive and promise their friendship to both Ari and Dante.
Ari is feeling nervous as the school year begins, but this year proves different from previous years: This is the first time that Ari has loyal friends at school, which boosts his confidence. Ari begins participating in class and interacting with his peers in ways he never has before, which his peers notice.
Despite his slight increase in confidence, Ari spends much of his time feeling uncertain about himself, his abilities, and the future ahead. He recognizes that being both gay and Mexican complicates things in that being a gay Latino man at this particular point in history will not be an easy journey for him. Ari often feels resentful—sometimes even ashamed—of his circumstances, wondering if his life would be much easier if he were straight.
Throughout the year, Ari continues to learn more about his parents. Coming out to them has improved their relationship exponentially and has brought the family closer together. For the first time in his life, Ari recognizes and is deeply appreciative of the love his parents have for him, as well as the love they have for each other. The fulfillment Ari feels from having a mutually respectful and loving relationship with his parents empowers him to visit his brother Bernardo in prison, whom he has not seen since he was a small child. During the visit, Ari realizes that his brother—crude, violent, and discriminatory—is not a man he wants in his life. When Ari leaves his brother, he feels proud of himself and grateful to have gotten some closure. After the visit, Ari feels comforted, knowing that his brother will no longer haunt his dreams and his psyche.
Just when Ari’s relationship with his father is at its best, Jaime dies of a heart attack in Ari’s arms. Ari feels guilty about the years they wasted ignoring each other when they could have been openly loving with each other. Ari gives a powerful eulogy at Jaime’s funeral, where he declares that he is proud to be his father’s son and proud to carry on his legacy of kindness and community-mindedness.
The weeks following Jaime’s death are especially difficult for both Ari and Lilly. When Ari passes out in the desert and is brought home by Dante, his mother tells him that despite his sadness, he must learn to live again.
As his high school days come to a close, Ari experiences a complicated mixture of feelings that include sadness, regret, hopefulness, and joy. He is grateful to have such loving friends by his side as this chapter of his life comes to a close. When they graduate, Ari attends parties and gatherings with his peers, feeling happy to be living his life.
Shortly after commencement, Dante is accepted into a prestigious summer art program in Paris. Dante is hellbent on declining the offer so that he and Ari can spend the summer together before they go off to separate colleges. Knowing that the opportunity is too rare and special to pass up, Ari insists that Dante go to Paris. Ari’s insistence causes a major rift in the relationship, which Dante ends just one day before leaving for Paris. After having been given the cold shoulder for weeks prior, Ari is devastated by Dante’s abandonment.
While Dante is in Paris, Ari visits the Quintana’s to collect two paintings: one is by Emma’s son, and the second is by Dante, which he painted for Ari. The painting depicts the two boys sitting in Ari’s pickup, gazing up at the desert sky. Not wanting to end things with Dante, Ari decides to travel to Paris.
When he arrives in Paris, Ari is greeted by Gerald, a former professor of Sam’s and a gay man who has lived in Paris for many years. Gerald is a gracious host and tour guide, and overall, a warm and friendly man. He commends Ari for his bravery, both in traveling abroad on his own and in moving toward love.
Ari meets Dante at the Louvre, where they stand admiring their favorite painting, The Raft of the Medusa. They exchange few words, enraptured by the famous painting. Ari feels confident that he and Dante will map out a new world, and to create a place where everyone can feel safe and valued. Still standing in front of the painting, Dante and Ari kiss. Ari confesses that he was considering marriage, but that their parents would not allow it, so he figures “it was best to skip the wedding and get straight to the honeymoon” (377).
By Benjamin Alire Sáenz