Call Me By Your Name is a beautiful and heartbreaking novel that explores the thin line between lust and love and the ways in which human desire remains fundamentally the same throughout time. The novel was written by Andre Aciman, an Egyptian Jewish writer, in 2007 but it takes place “somewhere in Northern Italy in the mid 1980s”. The story is centered around 17 year old Elio, a young Italian Jewish boy and the son of a professor, and Oliver, an American Jewish scholar, as they fall in love one hot Italian summer. The book is written from the perspective of a much older Elio as he reminisces over the lost love that never truly left him. The storyline is simple and elegant yet emotionally complex in its exploration of love and personal development. The plot moves quietly through Elio’s mind as he falls in love and struggles with his own warring emotions over Oliver. The book is split into 4 distinct chapters, each offering fresh insight into Elio’s character and into the kind of love that is only ever truly felt once. As Elio says, “He came. He left. Nothing else had changed. I had not changed. The world hadn’t changed. Yet nothing would be the same. All that remains is dreammaking and strange remembrance.”
The first chapter is titled If Not Later, When? and begins by introducing Elio’s complicated feelings towards Oliver as their summer slowly begins. Aciman’s writing immediately stands out in its eloquence, transcending the english language to pinpoint emotions surrounding desire, love, and lust that have not previously been formally named or labelled. His plot contains no twists, no secret tunnels, no surprises. Instead, it flows naturally and peacefully, all the while corroding the walls of your heart. He does not write drama or mystery or fantasy, he writes reality. His work is harsh and honest, sparing no detail of the truth behind emotions, actions and characters. In this truth, you will find aspects of your own humanity. Elio is flawed and caring and feels everything so strongly because he is real as we all are, and in this, there is both comfort and a sense of emotional representation.
In the second chapter, Monet’s Berm, Aciman begins to truly explore the thin line between lust and love. He writes, “or are ‘being’ and ‘having’ thoroughly inaccurate verbs in the twisted skein of desire, where having someone’s body to touch and being that someone we’re longing to touch are one and the same, just opposite banks on a river that passes from us to them, back to us and over to them again in this perpetual circuit where the chamber of the heart, like the trapdoors of desire, and the wormholes of time, and the false-bottomed drawer we call identity share a beguiling logic according to which the shortest distance between real life and the life unlived, between who we are and what we want, is a twisted staircase designed with the impish cruelty of M.C. Escher.” In this passage, Elio explores his desire for Oliver as his feelings continue to grow. His confusion is captured perfectly by Acimans soft and delicate writing as finally, his love is reciprocated by Oliver. It feels, in this chapter, as if we are finally catching our breathes as the love unfolds before us, beautiful and unmatched. I must warn you, however, that the book can be quite graphic at times and is suggested only for a mature audience.
In the third chapter titled San Clemente Syndrome, Elio explores his desire for all people, both man and women, as he begins to realize that his joy and time with Oliver are both transitory; they are not meant to last. Aciman describes San Clemente Syndrome through the eyes of a poet. The poet says, “It came to me like an undefined nebulous feeling, part arousal, part homesickness, part metaphor. … I saw veils everywhere: what I wanted, what I didn’t know I wanted, what I didn’t want to know I wanted, what I’d always known I wanted. This is either miracle. Or it is hell.” Though the poet describes it, the true sense of the feeling is completely encompassed by their entire time in Rome. Through San Clemente Syndrome, Aciman beautifully names a number of emotions that had previously been left untouched. The story is personal and individual, reaching out to each person and communicating in different and unique ways. In order to gain perspective, I interviewed other members of the Call Me By Your Name book club on their own definitions of San Clemente Syndrome. “(San Clemente Syndrome) is the unexplainable moment when two souls mesh into one and lose all fear” said Emma Turner, a WCI student and member of the CMBYN book club, “It also shows this basic human desire to be close and intimate with another person, not just physically, but mentally as well. How the best relationships aren’t fully established through physicality but through the joining of the hearts and souls.” Simran Kalsi, another member of the club, described it as having “internal peace by simply existing.” The founder of the book club, Sarah Miller, said, “San Clemente Syndrome is when time seems to slow or stop to allow you to live within your own happiness.” For me, San Clemente Syndrome is about desiring everybody you meet but longing the most for the one you know you have to lose. It’s about longing for the return of a moment, missing it, even as it’s happening. The most beautiful aspect of this new emotion is that it is unique to each person. In this same influential way, Acimans writing influences each reader in varying and complex ways as he continues this story of love lost 20 years into the future.
In the last Chapter titled Ghost Spots, Aciman will break your heart and leave you aching for a love so rich as the love the belonged only to Elio and Oliver. This chapter is about goodbyes and about the ways in which love haunts you long after it is over. Oliver is gone, and Elio tells the story of them meeting again and again and again, 20 years into their futures. Life continued ever forward no matter how much Elio tried to hold on to that summer, to Oliver, to love. He could not go back again and find Oliver by the pool in his red bathing suit or on his bed reading or in the morning failing to crack a soft-boiled egg. Elio could not go back in time. He had lost Oliver, and with him, a love that could never be matched.
I cannot do this book justice by reviewing it. It is beautiful in every varying interpretation. It is different for each individual who reads it. It sighs and sways and breathes as if it were an extraordinary living thing. The words “must read” are not a strong enough recommendation for this book. It is an essential read, a fundamental read. For all those aching and hurting and lost in the depths of love and humanity, it is an absolutely necessary read.
Aciman, Andre. Call Me By Your Name. Picador, 2007.