Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman
The hardest part of writing a review for André Aciman’s powerful first novel, Call Me by Your Name is trying not to turn it into a love letter to the author. What could easily have been stuffed into a category as narrow as “gay lit” or, worse yet, classified as a summer romance, is instead a graceful reflection on the impact love has on man and the effect of time on love.
The story, told as a recollection, centers on a seventeen year old boy named Elio and a young scholar named Oliver, who spent a single summer with Elio’s family in the Italian Riviera more than twenty years ago. After an uneasy courtship built on moments of closeness punctuated by days of ignoring one another, Elio and Oliver finally consummate a secret romance that has been building from the day Oliver arrived and which marks both men for life.
I know a summer romance -- even a gay one -- doesn’t sound like particularly new territory, but Aciman’s careful writing and sharp insights fill his reader with an understanding of why, if there really are only a few possible plots, we keep reading books long after we’ve seen them all.
In a smart opening, a grown-up Elio speculates on the precise moment his boyhood romance began. “Maybe it started soon after his arrival during one of those grinding lunches…” “Or perhaps it started at the beach.” “But it might have started way later than I think without my noticing anything at all.”
By page ten, I was gratefully reminded of how, when carried off properly, literature written in the first-person can be incredibly successful at drawing in its readers. Aciman manages to pull it off without employing any of the standard tricks; the book is neither chatty, pain-spoken, nor dialogue-heavy. To the contrary, there’s a near-Classical feel to the writing. And I mean that as a compliment.
What’s most surprising in Call Me by Your Name is Aciman’s ability to make detailed writing about emotion interesting. I found myself thinking of Deliverance as I read. I never did figure out what in James Dickey’s writing made me want to read more about the movement of a paddle through a river, or the movement of the river itself, yet I did. I likewise searched for Aciman’s trick. Why wasn’t I skimming over those page-long, expository passages about love? I don’t know. But I wasn’t.
Not only was I not skimming -- I was actually experiencing an empathic response. Aciman renders his protagonist’s feelings so clearly and with such spot-on accuracy that his reader can’t help but relate.
Even the sex scenes -- which can seem jarringly graphic after descriptions of idyllic bicycle rides along the Rivera and afternoons spent by the pool -- are handled tastefully. (The possible exception is a scene on page 171, which I read twice, then called a friend and read to her to be certain I hadn’t misunderstood. I hadn’t.)
Almost every page contains another example of Aciman’s skill at making hard writing look easy. From a scene which takes place just days before the two men must part: “I suddenly realized that we were on borrowed time, that time is always borrowed, and that the lending agency exacts its premium precisely when we are least prepared to pay and need to borrow more... I wished I were like those soldiers in films who run out of bullets and toss away their guns as though they would never again have use for them, or like runaways in the desert who, rather than ration the water in the gourd, yield to thirst and swill away, then drop their gourd in their tracks. Instead, I squirreled away small things so that in the lean days ahead glimmers from the past might bring back the warmth. I began, reluctantly, to steal from the present to pay off debts I knew I’d incur in the future.”
The book closes in the present day in which, two decades after their first summer together, Elio and Oliver reunite for what might be the last time. Over the course of the novel, they have traded theories and opinions about composers, novelists, poets, and philosophers, but these final moments suggest that what is most deeply felt can only be expressed accurately by using fewest number of words. The silences between the men speak louder than their dialogue. It is a testament to Aciman’s writing that we know exactly what they mean.
Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux