Book Review: André Aciman’s Call Me

Find Me (Call Me By Your Name, #2)Find Me by André Aciman
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

A ridiculous, overwritten ode to romanticism and wish fulfilment, it’s so bad it may have ruined my affection for the prequel.

If you are reading this, I am guessing it is because you liked Call Me By Your Name and have also bought the sequel Find Me. And I did like the first book, an awful lot. It reminded me of my own romantic yearnings, as a teenager and young adult, not only to find the love of my life, a soul mate, but also a time when all of Europe seemed sophisticated and wealthy intellectuals who lived in or travelled to Europe seemed like the people that I wanted to be like.

I liked the story of Elio and Oliver, so much that I was willing to forgive the excesses of the book: it felt like both the romance and the physical expressions of romance were a fantasy, made up and not tethered to reality. Later, I learned that Aciman is a straight man, and that all the scenes of gay lovemaking were imagined, not from experience, and that made sense to me as well in that Elio and Oliver didn’t seem like gay men either: the messy business of sexuality and being in the closet and the politics of being a minority were absent. The lovers could have been straight or gay or lesbian: they really were fantastic genderless versions of human beings.

I remember my big criticism of Call Me By Your Name was a scene near the end of the book, in a restaurant, where suddenly instead of the lived experienced of the characters, they all start expounding on philosophy and literature, pages and pages of it. It bored me out of my wits. It was a preview of the faults of Find Me, where musings on love and memory substitute for an actual story.

I heard that Aciman was convinced to write a sequel, of sorts, to Call Me By Your Name, because of the success of the movie, and the desire of fans of the movie (and the book) to know what happened to the love story of Elio and Oliver, unfinished as it was. So, I can’t imagine a fan feeling anything but robbed on reading Find Me as, spoiler alert, their story only comes as the last 10 pages of 260. Seriously. I mean, if the whole point of a sequel is to follow-up on the main characters of the previous book, this is a slap in face, a mean trick, a sorry disappointment.

Instead, the book is composed roughly of two equal parts, the story of Elio’s dad, falling in love with a much younger woman on the train, and then Elio, seeming to fall in love with an older man at a concert. There is almost no plot and what plot exists is not interesting. You know how bad films can be good because at least it gives you something to talk about. It’s rare that a book frustrates me so much that I immediately think about how I’d write about it, but this is one.

It’s less a novel with a narrative than a treatise on romantic love. It’s a version of love that I imagined when I was 16 years old, and while I was a hugely romantic soul, it didn’t take me many years to come to believe that love is built and deepens; that love is likely not at first sight; that there is no one unique soulmate available for each person in the world; that it not only impossible to know someone else completely, including a partner, but that it is also not advisable. I allowed Elio his fantasies because he was a teenager. But these characters are adults, Samuel, a 50-something university professor, a 30-something year-old Elio, and the late 20s or early 30s something photographer, Miranda, Elio’s father’s love interest, and Michel, Elio’s love interest (50s or 60s even), and even Oliver, when we meet him in his early 40s.

Moreso than a rom-com version of love, what’s strange is that it seems this book is about loving oneself, or at least a number of versions of oneself. This is not the idea that we are attracted to what is different from us, or what is unknowable, or even what a romantic partner might have to teach us or challenge us. In Call Me By Your Name, Elio and Oliver were distinct. Elio was a young romantic, dramatic and erratic. Oliver was charismatic and cool, brushing off attention with an aloofness. So, how come all the characters in this book feel the same? Even when we meet Elio and Oliver at the end of the book, you have to follow the ‘Elio said’ and ‘Oliver said’ to know who has said what.

The characters in Find Me have approximate ages and names, but none are described physically (except as beautiful in each other’s eyes). They are so vague that they could be anyone. Except they are all the same. Their attractions are not limited to age (both Samuel and Elio choose partners across a large age gap) or gender (Oliver seems truly bisexual, but also apolitical and not tethered to a context where it matters what gender you are attracted to).

They really all seem to be the same person. Each character is cultured and artistic: a musician, a photographer, academics and historians. They appreciate art, music and food and can talk about them in particularly intellectual (some would say obscure) ways. They adore each other. They are verbose. Miranda tells Samuel early on, “Call it another one of my paradoxes fished out of my overfilled bag of notions.” Overfilled. Yes.

It is hard to tell which person is speaking. At least three of the five romantically involved lovers comment, after sex involving bodily fluids, that they didn’t want to wash as they hoped strangers would smell it upon them afterwards. I mean, c’mon. One person was enough. Surely all of you can’t share this same proclivity. When a theme repeats so often in fiction writing, you really start to think it’s the author talking and not the characters. And where was the editor to point out how repetitive this is (and by repetition, less convincing).

Pretty much every character says about the other, “I liked this about them”, or “I loved the way they did this thing”. It’s maddening. The old writer’s rule about showing readers what’s happening instead of telling them: it’s broken over and over, as ridiculously, every few pages, Samuel says ‘I liked the way she talked’ or some variation. Oliver about a female object of desire later: “I liked hearing her laugh”. On only the page before about a male object of desire: “I love his glistening wrists”. Elio, holding hands with Michel, tells him “I do love this.”

Narrative sloppiness aside, I just can’t buy this version of romance. Let’s review the first. An older professor, Elio’s father, meeting a beautiful young woman on a train, and within 12 hours embarking on a mad and passionate romance. Their initial dialogue as they get to know each other is simply not how people talk to each other or get to know each other. They banter and tease each other, seeming to know what each other is going to say, and then compliment each other on how much they think the same.

The fantasy here is perhaps even more unrealistic than in the previous book. Here are two cultured, artistic people who read Dostoevsky and appreciate Italian sculpture, food and wine, who within a short time decide that ‘I am yours and you are mine’ and that the highest form of romance is to tell each other their most intimate secrets and to know everything about each other, as well as to promise each other their love, forever. Samuel says about Miranda, “I loved knowing about her life. I told her I wanted to know everything.”

(Later, Elio says about Michel that he “seemed to know me … better than I did, because he must have known it from the moment he’d [first] spoken to me”. Aside from the fact that Elio eventually dumps Michel: how can we know other people so intimately, without knowing them? This to me mistakes knowledge with projection).

In the meantime, Miranda and Samuel buy coffee mugs with their initials on them from a housewares store. They decide to have children. They plan to get tattoos at the same time. Listen, I’m not exagerrating. Elio, meeting them, less than 24 hours later, remarks that he can tell his father is in love. Samuel decides that because Miranda is reading Chateaubriand that he would now be happy to read this author for the rest of his life. Are you f*ing kidding me? I can forgive romantic fantasy in a teenager, but in a 50-something university professor?

The wish fulfilment also becomes creepy here, and reminds me of the endless Hollywood films where the male directors have aging male stars as their stand-ins, who effortlessly attract nubile, beautiful 20-year-old women. In this age of #MeToo, writing the fantasy of a beautiful young woman falling completely madly and deeply for a plain, much older man, and jumping into raunchy sex within hours of meeting is uncomfortable.

Elio falling for Michel in the second part of the book is less objectionable but doesn’t make much more sense. None of the couplings face any challenges. A short mystery is inserted into the romance of Elio and Michel, which is oddly academic and requires a technical explanation of the cadenza of a sonata (and Jewish liturgical music) to unravel. About the mystery, Michel tells Elio “I love that you’ve taken such an interest” to which Elio replies “I love it too, very much.”

Even at the end of the book, any conflict is skirted over. Elio dumps Michel to be with Oliver. Oliver dumps his wife and kids. They meet and talk not of the past, or of any problems with dumping their partners, but how madly and truly they are in love with each other, in spite of having almost no contact for 20 years. Though in visions, Oliver has imagined Elio saying “We’re still the same, we haven’t drifted.” Oh, how miserable I would be if I was still the same as I was when I was 17, naive, intense and erratic, sweet but unwise about the world.

These are fantasies that I can’t buy into, about a love that never dies, about people that never change, about love at first sight, about falling in love with someone because they are basically the same person as you. “For all I want is to think of you, and sometimes I don’t know who’s the one thinking, you or I”. This is Oliver imagining what he’ll tell Elio.

The book does strive for meaning, too hard. Miranda tells Elio about Samuel, “what I love about him [again, this obsession with describing what one likes and loves] … is the way his mind twists everything, as if life were made up of meaningless scraps of paper that turn into tiny origami models the moment he starts folding them.”

But this seems like a wish more than reality. These scraps of thoughts held no structure for me. They held together long enough only for me to want to write this review of disappointment and criticism.

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