Love stories punctured by loss, doubt, regret and a lifetime of longing. Will the world ever have its fill of them? I hope not. They inspire the most beautiful writing, as you’ll witness when reading Call Me by Your Name by Andre Aciman.
Elio and Oliver are teenagers when they first meet in an unnamed coastal town in Italy. Oliver, a graduate student from America, is a guest in Elio’s home for the duration of the summer while he works on his dissertation. Narrated by Elio, a grown man reliving the intensity of that summer of sexual awakening with a maturity he never had at the time, the book is a meditation not only on the heat of lust and anxiety of wanting but also on the choices people make in life; what motivates us (are we ever fully conscious of what is at stake?) and more importantly whether we can ever be at peace with the consequences of our decisions.
The tragedy in Call Me by Your Name is that the young Elio is far too immature to be making the kinds of choices he is faced with at the end of the summer, or not faced with as it were. Because Oliver, who is considerably older at the time, simply does not offer him any. He leaves “Later!” – whether propelled by fear or indifference or simply the inevitability of a life led following the textbook, is never really clear (this provides an important dimension of authenticity to the story; how often are we ever truly privy to the motivations of others? All-loving does not make us all-knowing).
It is interesting though that in the end, the person whose loss is felt most keenly is that of Oliver’s rather than Elio’s. Although we don’t know the specifics of Elio’s circumstances, it is Oliver who clearly seems to be living a life which in a sense has fulfilled the prophecy that Elio’s father had warned about:
“Most of us can’t help but live as though we’ve got two lives to live, one is the mockup, the other the finished version, and then there are all those in between. But there’s only one.” (p. 225)
“Some, for fear of taking any turns, find themselves leading the wrong life all along” (p. 99)
I understand Call Me by Your Name is often upheld as a kind of poster-book for the gay coming-of-age genre. Certainly there are passages within it, specifically the conversation that Elio has with his father, which will have a particular relevance to any young person dealing with the implications of ‘coming out’. Elio’s father handles their “talk” with a sensitivity and wisdom and ultimately unconditional love and acceptance that will make you weep.
But it would be criminal for such a thought-provoking and fine piece of literature to be shelved so narrowly. The writing is deep and brooding, the descriptions of scene and dialogue so perfectly observed, it is no wonder there are people driven to distraction trying to work out precisely where the novel is set so that they can visit the town in person. I, on the other hand, will never be able to look at an Apricot (Apricock?) the same way ever again.
Moreover, the things that the grown-up Elio is left contemplating after half his life has been lived and the summer with Oliver is but a distant memory, are the same that anyone might find themselves contemplating in later life. These are not idle musings about ‘what if?’, rather a very real sense that eventually the significance of those critical events and people that have so irrevocably and sometimes unexpectedly shaped our lives, might one day be understood, if not entirely accepted, in the grander scheme of things.
***This book has been Insta Book Reviewed! Don’t know what that is? Check it out! You may even be able to resolve your curiosity about the subtle references to fruit…****