[Review includes spoilers; don’t read it if you plan on reading the book and don’t want to know key plot points and issues!]
André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name is a ridiculously romantic novel that will appeal to those who experienced a heartbreaking and heart-stopping first romance, or for those who find the idea beautiful. While I believe a friend had recommended the book to me before the movie came out, I did see the movie first and I read a lot about it: for an old gay activist like me, it was exciting to see a gay romance in a mainstream movie, one that got so much attention.
The reception among Facebook friends and acquaintances was mixed though, including among many gay men who said, ‘What’s the fuss about?’ For the romance in the book and the film was not just the emotional one. If you think that’s it a cool idea to have erudite, artistic parents, and to transcribe classical music scores in your spare time, to speak multiple languages and spend time in the Italian countryside, well, you’re in (I count myself in this group). But I understand that others find these pretentious ideas, latching on to a particular wealth and class.
And while there’s emotional hurt and trauma, all the landscapes in this book are also romantic and soft, beautifully described I’d argue: ‘the rolling fields of the valley leading up to the hills seemed to sit in a rising mist of olive green: sunflowers, grapevines, swatches of lavender, and those squat and hummable olive trees stooping like gnarled, aged scarecrows gawking through our window as we lay naked on my bed.’
So, if you’re after something more gritty, more urban, this won’t be for you.
I found the debates about identity and experience quite interesting. For the movie, that two heterosexual actors would embrace gay roles without fearing they would torpedo their careers was heartening; Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet did the publicity rounds as goofy, best friends, full of charm. And yet there was the question of how a gay actor might have played Chalamet’s character: would it have made a difference? Hammer’s character, Oliver, seems pretty bisexual, so I think the energy he brought to the role was appropriate.
Similarly, I read about readers who questioned Aciman’s sexuality: how could a straight man write so convincingly about a gay experience? He must be gay! Or: did the book lack authenticity because it wasn’t based on enough lived experience? I found this tension in the book interesting, aware of the debate as I read the book.
I wasn’t completely convinced of the authenticity. Both characters, Oliver and Elio seem to default to the same state of shame when thinking about getting involved with each other, a shame that isn’t explained or contextualised. Yes, being gay is often considered shameful, and moreso depending on one’s religious and cultural background, but this shame felt somewhat amorphous and imagined.
Both characters lean towards bisexuality, yet also as sort of a default; even when Elio is in love with Oliver and at the height of romance, he makes an offhand remark about feeling like making love to an older woman at a gathering. When Elio is making love with one of the young women in the village, is it simply because he’s a horny teenager? Or is he attracted to women? Finally, the physical acts of lovemaking are not described: no blow jobs, no f#cking. Instead, there are the remarkable scenes: the famous one that made it into the film with a peach; the one that gives the book its title, a verbal request for complete empathy; and what shocked me, where Oliver places his hands on Elio’s stomach while he is defecating, to achieve a new level of intimacy.
In an interview, Aciman talks of having to imagine what gay sex would be like, not being an expert himself. I sort of felt while reading the book that I could feel the author in the process of imagining.
But does it matter? Perhaps not. What feels absolutely truthful is the human experience of falling in love, of trying to play it cool, of flailing around, of trying to express oneself, of running out of time, of trying to appreciate an experience as it is happening while knowing it won’t happen again, and may not lead to anything. The many tiny moments that Aciman portrays as making up this whole, messy process, I found, beautiful and profound. Speaking of self-loathing, Elio asks ‘… if one got used to that. Or does one accrue a deficit of malaise so large that one learns to find ways to consolidate it in one lump feeling with its own amnesties and grace periods?’
But I did feel a strange set of tensions in reading the book: loving much of the narrative and writing, while being uncomfortable with others. I don’t mind this experience of review and criticism and review though: it makes me engage more deeply with the book. As an aside, I thought the use of a character, a sick and precocious girl with a fatal disease, to show Oliver in a good light (how he makes friends with her) to be manipulative and clichéd. A dying child thrown into the story for effect: yuck.
Reaching the end of the book, I felt on somewhat of a rollercoaster. I was caught up in Elio and Oliver’s romance, and the relief of them finally communicating with each other after so much inability to say how they felt. The book takes them to Rome for a final farewell, and they join in a book reading and celebration, which turns into a raucous affair with a large cast of characters.
I found this part quite strange, and took me out of the rest of the book. The complicated metaphor of the Basilica of San Clemente representing layers of history and romance and loss and desire worked for me on some levels, but I hated the way the poet explaining the concept used an experience with a transgender hotel clerk in Bangkok as central. It felt like muddled exoticism of the wrong kind, not only Thailand as the mysterious Orient, but sex-charged Thais as a repository for white men’s desire for women and men and and something in-between. It felt icky, but also too much philosophising, as when Elio was commenting in these scenes, I lost his voice, and instead was just hearing what I imagined the author’s voice to be.
But then: the end. A much longer conclusion and over a longer period of time than the way the film ends (though I loved the way the film ends). I found it satisfying to know more of Elio and Oliver’s story, and the whole way that the end sort of sums up the whole experience but also leaves open-ended questions: What if you gave it a shot with that big love that got away? Does the romantic love of youth last? Are there people that you will always love?
And so we come back to the beginning of the review. This is a book for the romantic in your life, and for you, if you’re the romantic in your life.