Ah, young love: so smouldering, so passionate, so intensely felt. That’s the subject of Andre Aciman’s 2007 novel, Call Me By Your Name. It’s his first book of fiction, though he’s published other non-fiction books and teaches literature, so I’m not sure we could technically call it a “debut”. It tells the story of a blooming romance between 17-year-old Elio Perlman, and 24-year-old visiting scholar Oliver, who comes to the summer home of Elio’s parents in Italy, 1983. This book has become a pillar of the contemporary queer literature canon.
The story is told in retrospect, with grown-up Elio recalling the events of that fateful summer. He always resented his parents’ tradition of taking a doctorate student into their home for six weeks each year, forcing him to vacate his bedroom (that sacred space of a teenage boy) to make room for their guest. That all changed when Oliver, carefree and detached and beautiful, arrived. Without quite understanding why, his burgeoning bisexuality still a mystery even to him, Elio appoints himself to be Oliver’s tour guide, and their attraction (mutual, or not? who knows?) simmers.
Crikey, it’s intense – right from the very first page. Aciman doesn’t ease the reader in at all. Elio’s crush is all-consuming, overwhelming, obsessive and single-minded in an almost-scary way. I felt suffocated by Elio’s passion, trapped underneath the weight of it. Of course, that’s exactly how first love feels, so I think Aciman might have been Doing A Thing(TM) in mirroring that sensation for the reader, but still… maybe steer clear of this one if you’re narratively claustrophobic 😉
There’s a lot of push-pull in Elio and Oliver’s relationship. Elio rejects Oliver’s first overture, then Oliver pushes him away when he tries to get amorous. I know, I know, they were young and it was the ’80s, but sheesh – so much of the heartache could’ve been avoided with some open and honest communication! Elio pulls a very typical teenage boy stunt: he starts an affair with a local girl, Marzia (“see how much I don’t care if you reject me? I’ve got someone else!”), then slips a note under Oliver’s door being all “come meet me”. Unfortunately, it works, and they FINALLY do roots.
Despite the fact that it’s a coming-of-age story, Call Me By Your Name is hardly a young adult book. For one, it’s quite erotic, albeit in a highly literary way. All of the sexual encounters (including one truly smutty incident with a peach) are depicted in detail, but not to titillate. It feels more like Aciman is simply demonstrating the depth and desperation of Elio and Oliver’s desire.
Before he heads home to America, Oliver decides to take a little trip to Rome (as you do), and Elio accompanies him – a lover’s getaway. It’s bittersweet, though, because it’s over almost before it began. By the time Elio returns to his parents’ home, alone, all traces of Oliver have been removed. And, just to compound both the bitterness and the sweetness, Elio’s father intimates that he understands the true nature of his “friendship” with Oliver, and that he approves. I’m so grateful to Aciman for sparing us the parents-kick-him-out-after-coming-out trope!
Of course, that’s not quite the end of the story. A few months later, at Christmas, Oliver visits again – with big news. He’s getting married, to a woman. Obviously, that pisses Elio (still young and in the throes of first love) right off. They fall out of touch, almost completely, for over a decade.
We fast-forward fifteen years. Elio is (relatively) grown up but still unable to let go of that summer romance he had as a teenager. He decides to visit Oliver in the U.S., where he’s now a professor at a prestigious university. You’d think – both being older and uglier and better able to handle themselves – they’d finally sort their shit out, but nope! Oliver admits he’s been online-stalking Elio for years, following his career. Elio tells Oliver there’s no way in hell he wants to meet Oliver’s wife and children, because he’s seething with jealousy and he still has a massive hard-on. They entertain themselves with the could’ve-would’ve-should’ves for a while, then go their separate ways.
Finally, five years after that – so that’s twenty years after their first meeting, and one year before the narrator’s present – Oliver returns to visit Elio in Italy. Elio, in a fit of romantic madness, says that if Oliver remembers and still desires everything between them, he should once more “look me in the face, hold my gaze, and call me by your name”. The ending is highly frustrating in its ambiguity – do they? don’t they? what happens next? – so Aciman released a sequel last year, Find Me, to fill in the blanks.
Call Me By Your Name isn’t about Oliver – it’s a strange thing to say, I know, given that Oliver consumes Elio’s every waking (and even sleeping) thought. It might be unromantic of me to even suggest this, but I feel like “Oliver” could’ve been literally anyone who crossed Elio’s path at that point in his life. It just so happened to be him onto whom Elio projected everything: his hopes, his confusion, his sexuality, his history, and his desires. In that view, it’s a fascinating character study of a young queer man coming-of-age through a formative love affair, and deftly avoids all of the tragic tropes with which the canon is littered.
And, of course, Call Me By Your Name was adapted to a critically-acclaimed film, directed by Luca Guadagnino in 2017. It won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, even. I have no idea how they managed to translate such an interior, obsessive novel to the screen, but hats off to them. I’m not sure I’ll be seeking out the film, but I do highly recommend this book if you need something warm to savour with a glass of red wine (or three) on some freezing winter night…
My favourite Amazon reviews of Call Me By Your Name:
- “Too little for too long” – Amazon Customer
- “I recomend” – Sandro Guia Los Angeles
- “This is a foriegn language book trying to return.
Do not speak This language.” – David Hancock
- “The writing was beautiful but I wish I hadn’t read it. I didn’t like it AND it broke my heart.” – KatMarie
- “I’m no soft porn expert, but that’s how this book struck me. On the whole, it was OK but not one I’d recommend to a lot of people.” – Marti Johnson