It turns out falling in love is nowhere near as hard as actually being in love. That’s what Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza discovers. The way his heart beats a tattoo that is constantly calling for his boyfriend, Dante; the way his body prickles with desire at the mere thought of Dante—it’s almost overwhelming. And perhaps unexpected for a boy who is just learning that he’s not quite as invisible at school or in his community as he once thought. Questions roil through him: Does Dante feel the same? Is there any future for them? Will their friends accept them? Are they doomed to die of AIDS like so many of they gay men they’ve heard about on TV?
Despite so many unanswered questions, Ari and Dante manage to spend the summer before their senior year building a relationship. When school starts, their support system grows to include more friends. And Ari, though he long imagined himself an invisible part of the community, learns that his opinion is valued and his friendship wanted. With the support of Dante, their friends, and his family, Ari manages to stand up with and stand up for what he believes in. The same support circle helps Ari weather a devastating loss and gives him the determination to chase his dream halfway across the world.
Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World picks up like it’s continuing the last chapter of the first book: with Aristotle and Dante snuggling in the back of Ari’s truck. The overall timeline stretches from this (some time during the summer vacation between Ari’s and Dante’s junior and senior years of high school) until they start the next summer vacation. The entire book probably spans about one year of time, but feels like it covers so many eventful aspects of Ari’s life. First is the almost overwhelming strength of his feelings for Dante. This desire is so palpable on page. It starts off so clearly a mix of intense attraction and physical desire that mellows into comfortable intimacy. But Ari and Dante are not always in tune with each other. For example, there are a few times when they take a “breather,” usually because Dante is too upset to see Ari. One such instance comes when they fall down the rabbit hole of who-loves-who-more. Of course they figure it out, but it does remind the reader and the MCs that maybe there is an expiration date built into their relationship.
The story is not always (or necessarily often) driven by the romance between Ari and Dante, however. The spotlight is also shared with intimate explorations of what family and community mean to Ari. One significant development in this book is how much closer Ari gets to his parents. He sees them and tries to understand them outside the familial roles of “mother” and “father.” His parents aren’t just background characters, but actual role models Ari realizes are worthy of emulating. This is especially noticeable in Ari’s father/son relationship; during the course of this book, Ari really discovers his father is not simply a silent and stern disapproving authority figure, but a man who truly loves his family. There is also a whole arc where Ari learns to become friends with several of the girls with whom he’s grown up. This prepares him to open up to the other students in his class.
One of the most consistent themes in this book, to me, was personal growth. It all started with connecting to just one boy who amazed Ari with his vocabulary and his world view. With just that one solid connection to another person, Ari begins a journey that sets him on a path to becoming a thoughtful, intelligent adult. As the story progresses, Ari learns that it’s okay to take risks and to let people in. He slowly builds up his support network and is amazing at knowing that support goes both ways. Sometimes his circle is consoling him, sometimes he is consoling his circle. Perhaps Ari, as a character, shows tremendous emotional maturity and intelligence—indeed, he seems perfect at times. But what makes it work for me is the equally present hardships and sorrows that touch his life. He’s not reaching for his circle of friends because he failed a test or he’s worried about Dante not returning his calls. Ari reaches for friends and family when he wants to confront his incarcerated brother, when the death of a family member overwhelms him, when he learns outspoken bigotry is closer to home than he realized. For me, watching Ari navigate all these experiences made him a stunning narrator.
Overall, I thought Alire Sáenz’s book was beautiful. There was a lovely balance between Ari’s growing pains and youthful indiscretion, culminating in an enviably smart main character. The book’s short chapters and lack of wasted exposition kept everything feeling immediate and interesting. For me, this narrative style helped keep everything tied together well. For readers who enjoyed the first book, I’m sure you’ll find even more to enjoy in this sequel. If you are new to the series, I highly recommend reading book one first…but I think this story still conveys poignant messages about life and learning that also make it acceptable as a standalone. Readers should note there are references to the AIDS pandemic, transphobia, and anti-gay bigotry mentioned on-page.