Aristotle and Dante return to the page after a decade and take their place in the world
(Note: This review and interview contains mild spoilers for “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.” If you haven’t read that book, stop what you're doing and go pick it up. Right now.)
The long-awaited young adult novel “Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World” begins at dawn in the back of a red pick up truck, in the desert outside El Paso, in the summer of 1988.
More to the point, this sequel begins soon after the first book, “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,” leaves off, plunging readers back into the emotional intensity that brought the last installment to a close.
Cards on the table: The first book in this series means a great deal to me, and I am certainly not alone in feeling that way. It is a novel that I have returned to time and time again, especially during the pandemic, because it is full of so many different kinds of love that I cannot help but feel happy when I read it, even when difficult things happen in the story.
So it was with great excitement and some trepidation that I picked up this new book, hoping it would live up to the promises of the first novel, and knowing that my own high expectations might very well be setting me up for disappointment. Luckily, to my mind, at least, author Benjamin Alire Sáenz delivered. (Sáenz is a keynote speaker for the Teen Book Festival, part of this year's virtual Texas Book Festival. He will speak at 11:45 a.m. Oct. 23. Go to www.texasbookfestival.org for details and to RSVP for the virtual stream.)
“Waters of the World” takes Aristotle, usually called Ari, and Dante through their senior year of high school, wrapping up loose threads from the previous novel and introducing new themes as the characters keep growing up. Plenty happens during the story, but much like the first book, this one is driven not by plot but by characters, the moments they share, and some truly stunning dialogue.
Sáenz said in an interview conducted over email that he doesn’t think of this book as a sequel but rather the completion of the story that he started telling a decade ago. He worked on this book for five years, and toyed with the idea of writing from Dante’s point of view before coming to realize that he was not done telling Ari’s story, he said.
“I felt that I wasn’t finished saying what I needed to say through these characters,” Sáenz wrote. “I left off at what was really the beginning of their relationship. Falling in love is one thing; staying in love is quite another.”
To that end, readers should consider revisiting the first book before picking up this one, since there are plenty of allusions to moments and little details in part two that are easier to appreciate with the first book fresh in your mind.
Devotees of “Secrets of the Universe” will find many of the same narrative strengths in this new novel — the story remains rooted in the El Paso landscape and Ari’s narration often focuses on the familiar themes of love, family, identity and belonging.
“I think that a sense of place is absolutely essential for a writer because a writer has to know who they are and where they belong,” Sáenz said in our interview. “I love the border and its people. And I love the desert. I couldn’t keep the landscape out of my novels, even if I tried. If you look at my work overall, the desert and the city that has become my heart are the greatest characters in my work. If my characters seem like real people, it’s because they live in a very real place.”
Subtle differences, however, impact the scope of part two. Sáenz said one of his goals was to bring in more of the outside world into the narrative than he did last time. In many ways, this shift mirrors what it is like to grow up, as the characters start to think more actively about the world and their place in it. Though the first book deals with violence and homophobia, "Waters of the World" has a wider lens.
“There were, of course, issues that were unresolved in the first book and I felt that those issues needed to come to some kind of resolution, particularly the story line around Ari’s older brother,” Sáenz wrote. “But really, I was upset with myself for completely ignoring the AIDS epidemic in the first book. ‘Discover the Secrets of the Universe’ was turned inward. I wanted the sequel to turn outward —turn toward the world Ari and Dante lived in.”
And although I maintain that this book, like the last one, is easily enjoyed by readers of any age, even those well past young adulthood, Sáenz said that ultimately he writes with young people in mind.
“I write for young people. I write to give them back the hope that the world conspires to take away,” he said. “I do have this thing inside me that yearns for young people to understand how much their lives matter — and how much we need them.”
Through its twists and turns, this novel, like its predecessor, shines through with that hope. Hope that the world will be what we need it to be. Hope that we can hang on to those we love. Hope that we will be okay. Hope that, as Ari puts it, “If we’re very lucky, the universe will send us the people we need to survive.”