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Call Me by Your Name: A Novel Hardcover – January 23, 2007
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Much of the first half of Call Me By Your Name has a “stream of consciousness” feeling to it as Elio, a very precocious and intelligent but shy young man, defies his better intuitions and finds himself more and more attracted to Oliver. Oliver, in turn, appears aloof, enigmatic, or simply unresponsive to the younger man’s growingly obvious infatuation. Aciman beautifully captures the multiple emotions: doubts, worries, hopes, and despair of an apparently one-sided attraction and romance to which any reader, regardless of their sexual orientation, most likely will be able to relate. Elio’s situation and Aicman’s characters and dialogue are all very true to life. Aicman’s references to the Italian setting, its culture, and historic figures (especially artists) add color to his tale without becoming a distraction or principal focus.
By time both Elio and the reader are aware of Oliver’s true feelings toward the younger man, a new sense of urgency, an even greater feeling of sensuality and eroticism, and a more intense atmosphere of anxiety and impending doom enters the story—all of it exquisitely captured by Aciman’s exquisitely accomplished writing.
The minor characters in Call Me by Your Name are portrayed as lovingly and precisely as the two leads. Elio’s father and a younger female friend who is dying of leukemia, in particular, are given scenes of appealing tenderness and geniality. Both are people readers would like to know and embrace. Call Me By Your Name is filled with psychological insight, beauty, realism, poignancy, melancholy, regret, smiles, wonder, joy and celebration, and pathos. If it is possible for a novel to contain a genuine reflection of what it is like to be a human being, Call Me by Your Name is that novel.
The conclusion of Oliver’s six weeks with Elio and his family and the circle of friends he makes while in Italy before returning to the United States ends the way readers know it must, but it is not the conclusion of the novel. In the final chapter entitled “Ghost Spots,” Aciman benevolently gives readers further, later scenes depicting the lives of both Elio and Oliver. The scenes are like the rest of the novel: authentic and discerning with memories both sad and joyous while tinged with an aching, unforgettable bitter sweetness. Upon finishing the novel one can only conclude that Call Me By Your Name is a modern classic.
Let me preface my praises of this book by saying that I had a difficult, love-hate relationship with Elio (protagonist and narrator). His obsessive reading, re-reading, over-reading, over-re-reading into every little look, word, silence, and lack of look, borders on the hysterical if not out-right insane and nearly drives this book's readers (or me, at least) insane right along with him. Not to mention that it nearly breaks the taut string suspending the reader's disbelief because honestly, what teenage even speaks let alone THINKS like this? But after reaching the second act, it's quite clear that this obsessiveness is what has isolated him from his peers and why he searches to be so completely understood by someone like Oliver, who speaks his same coded language of gestures and unspoken words - even though they're often not on the same wave length.
Elio's fevered imaginings also make him an almost delightfully unreliable narrator, where something he narrates early on as fact (e.g. the cold, death-glares he'd receive from Oliver) turn out to be misguided by his prejudices and not true at all. It lends a tender, nostalgic quality to the whole thing (which is already close to bursting with nostalgia), knowing that all the events are not as they were but merely as he remembers them.
I came to realize that the story was painful to read because it was a painfully exact replica of what it is to be a teenager, and not because it was poorly written or ill-conceived. It intentionally takes its readers back to a time when your insides were on your outsides, all your feelings exposed, leaving you raw and vulnerable, so that every glance, every snide remark, especially from the person you're infatuated with, is like hot knives on your bare flesh. The reason I was so infuriated with Elio was because I was infuriated with myself, when I was a teenager, and felt and behaved the exact same way. Elio, despite his staggering intellect for a seventeen-year-old, is a profound idiot just like I was a profound idiot.
The meat of the story is the romance between our leads, slow and painful in its engineering (like a roller-coaster going up), terrifying, rocketing, elating, wonderful when it's happening (the roller-coaster plummeting), that leaves you aching, dizzy, and nauseous in its denouement (the end of the ride). You spend so much time worshiping Oliver through Elio's eyes that when he turns out to be the coward, you refuse to believe it, until you're dragged unwillingly to the book's end are slapped in the face with the reality that yes, Oliver was the coward all along.
This is probably one of the most erotic reads of the 21st century, thanks in no small part to the breathless suspense leading up to their first encounter together, but also because the author understands how sensuality is enhanced by disgust. Even though the book sometimes crosses the thin line between sexy gross and full blown gross-out (by the end of the book ALL of the bodily fluids have been prominently featured), it leaves the burning, frenzied sensuality at its core stronger for it.
I am confident that the movie adaptation (which I'll be watching soon) will be a perfect companion to this book, as it likely won't suffer from the book's flaws, such as being overly verbose, and its slow pacing on screen will probably feel more like sexual tension than having your nails being summarily torn from your fingers. Nonetheless, the novel contains some of the most stellar, quotable lines you'll ever encounter, and such gut-wrenching realism surrounding its heartbreak that you'll feel it as a hot knife across your raw skin.
If I could say one thing to this novel it would be: I'll die if you stop.