Call Me By Your Name is the most stunning, hauntingly beautiful, and painfully true novel I’ve read in some time. I finished it last night, and I am still bereft–not only because I’m heartbroken that it’s over, but because it feels like I’ll never read anything as good ever again. I know this is not true. But this is what really good novels do to me: I become convinced that nothing will ever live up.
There’s been a whole lot of buzz about the movie recently, but I picked it up without knowing much more than the basic plot: In the mid-eighties, seventeen year old Elio spends the summer with his parents at their Italian villa, and falls for twenty-four year old Oliver, an American grad student and their guest for six weeks.
I was expecting something ordinary but engrossing: a beautiful yet tragic coming-of-age story, a doomed love affair and its aftermath. What I got was not ordinary, but the most authentic, piercing, and and honest portrayal of teenage desire I have ever read.
Call Me By Your Name is an intensely interior book. I hesitate to call it stream-of-consciousness because it felt, if possible, even deeper than that. For the first two thirds of the book I could hardly breathe; I felt like I was existing inside Elio’s head. He becomes immediately obsessed with Oliver, such that their every interaction–every glance, every movement, every word passed between them–takes on immense importance. Elio spends whole paragraphs analyzing a single look, a single sentence, the briefest touch of Oliver’s hand to his shoulder. It sounds tedious; it is not. It is breathtaking. I cannot think of another piece of literature that so perfectly captures the overwhelming, unbearable, self-important intensity that can consume a teenager. It was so relatable it was painful.
Elio spends long hours fantasizing about Oliver, and it’s not just sexual fantasies (although there are those), but a reliving of moment after moment. He reimagines what he wanted to say and didn’t, what he wants Oliver to say, what he would do if he had the courage, etc. etc. Whole scenes took place entirely inside Elio’s head. Aciman blends fantasy and reality with a skill that stunned me. It was never confusing, but added a complicated layer to the story. There was as much conflict inside Elio’s head as there was in the real world, and this, too, felt like an incredibly keen understanding of the teenage psyche.
The frequent lack of dialogue tags, the long chapter-less sections, and the fact that Elio retold everything that happened, so that it almost felt like the book was without scenes (although it wasn’t) added to this sense of permeability. The lines between reality and fantasy, desire and intellect, action and consequence all blurred in fascinating ways.
I find that sometimes teenagers get shortchanged in literature. They are not always allowed to be whole, complex people. Elio, though, is a character for the ages. He’s specific–lonely, smart, bookish, shy, self-analytical. He’s undoubtedly seventeen, and acts it, but his emotional life is as rich as anyone’s. Being seventeen does not make him simple. Aciman takes him seriously, even when he’s being absurd, or self-obsessed, or overly analytical, or acting in one of the thousand sulky, bizarre, impulsive ways that teenagers sometimes act. This seriousness is a wonderful permission to the reader: we get to take him seriously, too.
Nor is Elio’s relationship with Oliver simple. Their story is not any one thing–it’s not just a love story, or a story about obsession, or a beautiful depiction of a first crush. It’s a story about intimacy. Elio’s emotions are constantly changing: volatile, dynamic, contradictory. He’s obsessed, he’s in love, he’s possessive, he’s happy, he’s scared, he’s sad, he’s overwhelmed, he’s overjoyed, he’s confused, he’s passionate, he’s shy, he’s courageous, he’s angry, he’s tender, he’s brash. In short: Elio experiences all the messy, complicated emotions that come with true intimacy.
The last third of the book jumped forward in time, and the narrative shifted dramatically–it suddenly became less close, less breathless, the earlier intensity replaced with something older, less urgent. This, too, felt so authentic. The way we think changes as we age. I loved the continuity of these two narrative styles, the way they fed off each other and together, presented a whole story, about intimacy and desire and the lasting effect a meaningful experience can have on our lives.
I’m in danger of going on at length, so I’ll only add that the writing was profoundly moving. Aciman’s descriptive powers are on full display; so many lines awed me with their beauty. At the same time, every line felt authentic to the time and place and character. Like in all the best novels (in my opinion), Aciman vanished without a trace.
Call Me By Your Name was also a beautiful reminder that a novel does not have to be grand and sweeping, or dramatic, or explore heavy subject matter, in order to be great. Sometimes one summer, the tiniest gesture, a quiet conversation, one afternoon on a hill in Italy has just as much to say to us about the condition of being human.
Don’t even get me started on the audiobook. It was so good it makes me want to cry just thinking about it. It’s taking a lot of willpower not to simply start it again from the beginning and play it on loop until I can get it out of my system.