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

Title: Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World (eARC)

Series: Aristotle and Dante #2

Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Genre/Themes: YA Coming of Age, Historical Fiction (1980s set), LGBTQ+, First Love, HIV and AIDS, Homophobia, Racism, Grief

Blurb from Goodreads

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 Review

I have such fond memories of reading “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe”. I read it back in 2017 and while I can’t recall the exact events of the novel I can remember that there was a sort of purity to it; the story was beautiful and hopeful, and it filled my heart with joy.

Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World” couldn’t be more different. It was, quite frankly, an utter mess.

Gone was the beautiful lyricism of prose and the tenderness of the storyline. In its place were countless awkward and stilted inner monologues. Dialogue that was intensely cringe inducing. And teenage characters that acted in a very peculiar fashion with an unnatural sense of self awareness.

And most disappointingly gone was the deep connection between Ari and Dante. Dante practically disappeared for whole chunks of this novel which was to its detriment. Whenever he did appear it seemed like there was an ever widening chasm developing between him and Ari which was entirely peculiar because they both claimed to love each other so much. I get that romantic relationships have their ebbs and flows, especially when the couple are so young and are both coming of age… but the way their relationship was written here was entirely frustrating.

Things weren’t helped by the way the novel was structured either. Instead of a cohesive plot that moved at a pleasing rhythm we were subjected to a series of vignettes masquerading as chapters. Many of these *chapters* were less than a page which meant that the cadence of the novel was continually shuddering leaving little to no room for immersive storytelling.

And good gosh was this book miles too long. I remember early on checking my kindle to see how much I’d read because I was wondering when I could expect the plot to truly get going and then discovered I was only at 8%!!! I knew then I was in for a bloat-fest of a book and I was not wrong. It seriously fell down in the editing department.

One of the things I found most unsettling about the novel was a hyper fixation on genitalia and how genitalia apparently equated with gender in the minds of these characters. I get that these are teenagers in the 1980s that are figuring out their identities and therefore might not be au fait with the fact that gender isn’t binary, but there was no nuanced discussion here. Instead it felt as if there was somewhat of an agenda that left no room for anything outside the confines of binary which I do not like especially when a book is in the YA LGBTQ+ category as this is.

Also there was A LOT of misogyny hidden among the pages. But because Ari and Dante were gay they claimed they couldn’t be accused of misogyny against the female characters… and I’m there like, eh that’s not how it works. You don’t just get a free pass cos you’re gay.

And the full on bi-phobia that Dante displayed? Like okay. Let’s have Dante be jealous of Ari making friends with female characters and then fully explore those emotions. Or maybe have Ari himself sit down and think about whether he was perhaps bisexual. But nope, instead the biphobic storyline was just inserted into the novel as a cheap plot device for a few paragraphs and I did not like it.

That’s really what’s so wrong with this novel. There was no nuanced discussion about anything. No aspect of the plot was ever properly explored meaning that every plot device felt distinctly shallow. Therefore when uncomfortable situations occurred or uncomfortable statements were made I felt deeply uneasy.

Case in point when Dante was biphobic, or when there was blatant misogyny towards the female characters.

It’s not that there were no repercussions; books don’t have to be about teaching nor punishing characters who mess up because life is filled with good people making terrible mistakes. But using hot topic issues as lazy plot devices just left me quite perturbed.

Especially when Ari misgendered a trans woman on more than one occasion. In those instances I couldn’t help but wonder was it deliberate because it didn’t serve the storyline in any meaningful fashion? So was it just a boy learning about the non binary nature of gender and making mistakes because he didn’t quite understand? Or was it purposeful transphobia? But then what on earth was that whole thing when Ari visited her grave and decided to give her a whole new name?!?!?!? That felt incredibly alarming imo. Names have such a deep meaning for transgender people so that whole plot point really should have been left on the editor’s cutting room floor.

And then when I think about what happened in the original book; Ari and Dante had so many great philosophical discussions about all sorts of things where it felt that they were learning about themselves, about each other and about life in general. That to me is what a coming of age novel should read like and therefore that first book felt so much more well rounded. But here in the sequel there was nothing.

There were a bunch of other plot points that either felt strange or seriously underdeveloped but if I were to list them all this review would be as long as the book! This is definitely a case of unnecessary sequel and I wish I hadn’t read it because it’s destroyed any good feeling I had about the original book.

A big no from me.

*An e-copy was kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley for honest review*

  • Publication Date: 4th November 2021
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children’s UK

Other Works by Benjamin Alire Sáenz I’ve Reviewed

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5 thoughts on “Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World by Benjamin Alire Sáenz – Book Review

  1. I agree with you. I wasn’t as invested in the second book as I was with the first which was a book I really really loved. I had the same concerns as you did. While it did highlight some social concerns, from racism to the role of the education system, that persist in the contemporary, I still feel underwhelmed by the story. Dante fading to the background was another huge cause of concern for me.


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