Seventeen-year-old Elio is drunk on desire, delirious with it, dazed to the edge of his senses. He's also paranoid about it, even...
“Call Me by Your Name”
by André Aciman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
248 pp., $23
Seventeen-year-old Elio is drunk on desire, delirious with it, dazed to the edge of his senses. He’s also paranoid about it, even consumed with self-loathing at times. He blows hot, he blows cold; he turns on, he turns off; he’s neither here nor there, but everywhere and anywhere in his mix of certainty and confusion over his feelings.
The object of his desire?
Twenty-four-year-old Oliver, a Columbia University research student visiting Elio’s family in their summer quarters on the Italian riviera.
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Or is it teenage girl-next-door Marzia whom Elio really wants?
No, no, it’s Oliver. But Marzia will do. Marzia, at a stretch, can put Oliver briefly out of mind … until Oliver comes roaring (or, actually, bicycling) back into view.
In “Call Me by Your Name,” the debut novel by memoirist André Aciman (“Out of Egypt”), the reader follows Elio through every kaleidoscopic turn of his senses and change of erotic direction. Aciman’s prose is alive to each spiral and retraction of feeling, to every signal sent out and withdrawn.
The result is a tender-tough story of headlong love and awkward timing that reads a little like a highbrow cosmopolitan variation on “Brokeback Mountain.” Elio and Oliver’s tale may be drenched in Mediterranean sunlight and filtered through a sensibility as refined as Henry James’ or L.P. Hartley’s, but ultimately these lads are even less able than Annie Proulx’s Jack and Ennis to make something durable of their passion.
Intellectually, they’re close to a perfect match. Voracious reader Elio easily holds his own against Oliver, a specialist in pre-Socratic philosophers who’s writing a book on Heraclitus. Elio’s piano talents are, if anything, even more impressive and eclectic than his range of learning.
But there’s more to it than that. Both young men are Jewish and both are from backgrounds — New England for Oliver, smalltown Catholic Italy for Elio — where being Jewish is unusual, amounting to a kind of exile. Elio latches onto this fact with fervor.
The seven-year age difference between them shouldn’t be that big an obstacle either. Elio is already well on his way into the adult world (“Not even eighteen years old,” their housekeeper quips, “and already he leads la dolce vita”), and his parents are actively encouraging him to get out into the world and gain a little more experience — what brand of experience is almost of secondary importance.
Elio is vividly conscious of their love and generosity, and agrees with Oliver that he is “one of the luckiest persons on earth.” Oliver too, in his enigmatic way, seems quite the golden boy, and able to recognize “heaven” when he sees it.
So what dooms their love?
The clues are there, in Elio’s sharp observations of Oliver, right from the start: “Nothing he did or said was unpremeditated. He saw through everybody, but he saw through them precisely because the first thing he looked for in people was the very thing he had seen in himself and may not have wished others to see.” In a more comical comment on Oliver’s ability to compartmentalize, Elio notes: “He had, it took me a while to realize, four personalities depending on which bathing suit he was wearing.”
Within the highly eroticized compartment Elio and Oliver explore together, identities are shattered and connection is complete. But there are always other compartments to return to, at least in Oliver’s mind, each with its own demands. And therein lies the problem.
With its radiant yet shadowed air of nostalgia, “Call Me By Your Name” is reminiscent of — though far more sexually overt than — L.P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between.” It pays conscious homage, with its identity-melding passions, to Emily BrontÃ«’s “Wuthering Heights.” It’s a great love story, whether you’re gay or straight (Aciman is married with three sons and has had, he says, no gay experience). Like “Brokeback,” it’s about having happiness in hand yet somehow being powerless to hang onto it.
“Going back is false,” a grown-up Elio realizes. “Moving ahead is false. Looking the other way is false. Trying to redress all that is false turns out to be just as false.”
Maybe so. But every phrase, every ache, every giddy rush of sensation in this beautiful novel rings true.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com.
He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has published four novels.