No book celebrates summer more lavishly than Call me by your Name, a masterpiece on first love.
The slow pace of its narrative is synonymous with the lazy, languid days of the Italian countryside summertime it is set in, where every moment is spent reading, splashing around in the pool, playing the piano, discussing art and literature and falling in love for the first time ever. The pace and the passion both identify with the sultriness of summer.
André Aciman takes it slow; because really, what’s the rush? There’s a kind of magic found in the unhurried unfolding of the scenes and the unrushed unraveling of the characters. This is a book made to be savoured every moment of.
The author writes about seduction in steaming, seductive words and it doesn’t really take more than a few minutes into the book to realise that he is seducing you as well. His poetic prose makes the book read like an elegy. He paints a vivid painting of the landscape and the people with brush strokes of vibrant hues to lure you in. But it’s more than just a pretty face, it is a book that is constantly in pursuit of knowledge and learning.
Set in the 1980s, Call me by your Name is a love story between Elio, a 17 year old boy who falls in love with his houseguest Oliver, a 24 year old lad from America. Elio is the son of art-loving, romantic, open-minded parents and as can be deciphered from his conversations about his own, Oliver is not.
It is an elegantly written story of coming-of-age and coming out, simultaneously. It is a love letter on time and desire, on longing and belonging, on adolescent restlessness and sexual awakening. It is a book on youth’s intoxicating desires, told at a poetic pace.
Elio and Oliver’s love, and the palpable intimacy that ensues is not dismissed as a trivial case of vacation infidelity, or as a folly of youth, it is rather explored for the distinct mark it leaves. The narrative tries to convince you, rather successfully, that most of love is in the longing, in the wanting and not the winning.
The pursuit of each other, the quiet brooding of one over the other, the sensuous titillation of their conversations and confrontations all play out like a mellifluous Bach cantata, much like that one passionate rendition played by Elio over the piano in a particularly exuberant scene. More often than not, music and touch concur with each other to inflame the erotic tension between the two. This is apparent more in the 2017 movie adaptation of the same name than in the book.
This is perhaps the first time, and the only time, I would recommend watching the movie first and then reading the book. Why? Because the book, being equal in eloquence as its film counterpart, is much more elaborate by design. It lingers on the same moment, it dives deep into every tiny thing and thought. It is slow, sometimes too slow, and therefore, not for a generation that does not believe in casting so much as a second glance.
The book is also more raw, more evocative; it does not hold back on details. Sometimes, there’s too much of it. It made me, even me, cringe on its descriptiveness at one instance, the much-too-discussed-about ‘’peach scene’’. I handled myself well during the movie, not so much while reading the book.
Possibly the greatest triumph of the book was creating an all-seeing, all-understanding character in the form of Elio’s father. In one soul-stirring monologue, he comforts his heartbroken son with words that seem to be coming out of from his own scathed experience.
“We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste!”
These words, and the rest of the monologue, deliver a life lesson and they are, surely, the most important words the heartbroken, or those in self-doubt, can hear.
This is just another aspect that sets apart this novel from the others of the genre. It is also that one novel that truly fulfills the purpose of art, it mesmerises you and then leaves you speechless in its teaching.
It is a story is told entirely in flashback by Elio of a love and of a summer that lives with him for a lifetime. A summer that comes only once, a summer that changes you, changes the course of life altogether.
But however happy this summer may be, there’s a lingering sensation of its end and with it, a romance that was not meant to be, yet should have been.
There’s no betrayal, no society telling them apart, no meddling parents. There’s just a goodbye and a promise of keeping in touch. And then a meeting 15 years later.
Call me by your Name is a book that makes you want a love like Elio and Oliver, and then brings about a grave sadness that perhaps that can never be. A love like that doesn’t come calling upon everyone. Not everyone gets to say ‘’Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine.’’