What are the main differences between Ari and Dante?
Ari and Dante are actually quite different people. Socially, Dante is everything that Ari is not. He is outgoing, confident and charming, with a large circle of friends and a great many interests, including swimming. Ari is basically friendless until he meets Dante. He is not good at social interaction and he feels isolated from others, and from life in general. He does not have many serious interests, and he can't swim.
They also differ in their home lives. Both are very loved by their parents, but Dante's family express this in a way that astounds Ari. He cannot imagine his parents showing their affection so publicly and obviously. This is part of the reason why Dante is so socially outgoing and why Ari is not, having learned to keep to himself within his family.
Finally, they differ in their own journeys of discovery about themselves. Dante knows that he is gay. He tells himself and Ari that he knows he would prefer kissing boys over girls. He wants to know what a kiss with a boy would be like and so kisses Ari as an experiment, which is also a sneaky way for him to kiss Ari and have a good reason for it. He knows that he loves Ari, but is devastated that Ari doesn't feel the same way. Ari, by contrast, has not even questioned his own sexuality. He assumes that he is straight and that he likes girls (his obsession with Illeana supports this theory). He is also reluctant to admit to himself that he is gay. He is in denial even after kissing Dante, pretending to have felt nothing. He is uncomfortable and ashamed of his orientation until he learns more about himself and those in his family.
What does Ari learn about his parents that most surprises him?
Because Ari's parents keep their cards close to their chest, he feels that he does not know them, and vice versa. He feels disconnected from them and sees them only as the people who keep him from his brother. However, as the novel progresses, he begins to see them as something different. The most surprising thing is that they have already spent decades supporting and sticking up for a gay family member. This surprises Ari because he didn't know they were that strong of character, or that open-minded. He also learns that Bernardo committed a hate crime, and once again discovers their support for gay and transgender people.
He is also surprised when they decide to become more open about their feelings in an attempt to get him to share his. This shows him that they really do love and care for him, and also that they know him far better than he thought they did.
Why is Ari so fascinated with Bernardo?
He is fascinated with Bernardo because he is a mystery. The Mendoza family act as though Bernardo is dead, but Ari knows he is not, and consequently, he wants to know exactly what it is that is being kept from him. Part of his obsession is about Bernardo specifically, and finding out more about the older brother he really feels he would like to get to know, and part is fueled by the general feeling that he is being kept out of a family secret, and is therefore only on the periphery of the family as a whole.
Why is the narrative about Ari's aunt Ophelia important?
Ari's aunt Ophelia acts as a glimpse into the world outside El Paso and represents the possibility of a different life for Ari, one where he lives in a true way. Ari has already had a connection with her previously as a child, but the revelation of Ophelia's sexual orientation reveals to Ari and the reader that it is possible to have a happy relationship with a same-gender partner despite the stigma. It also foreshadows the fact that Ari's parents will support him in his choices, as they insist on remaining in contact with Ophelia despite the fact that she has been shut off from the rest of the family.
What role do the arts, like music, literature, and art, play in this book?
Ari and Dante use the arts to connect to the world around them and to each other. The first thing that we see Ari doing in the book is listening to music. The two boys are very different in their tastes, but their shared love of reading and art brings them together often. Ari starts reading poetry after meeting Dante, and often they spend time together just consuming art. They also use art as a means of understanding themselves, as when looking at Dante's sketches tells Ari how Dante feels about him and how much Dante understands him.