So. There I was, two weeks ago, wedged into the dreaded middle seat between window and aisle on a flight from Dublin to Barcelona for the final leg of my long overdue vacation. I’m a naturally chatty person, so I had struck up a conversation with my Irish seatmate.
I pulled out my book to save on phone battery. He tipped his gray, goateed chin at my book. “Did you see the movie?”
“Mm-hmmm. I loved it.”
He scoffed. “It’s not nearly as good as the book.”
I looked down at my novel – I hear this all the time when working in the entertainment industry, and think it an entirely unfair assessment, since films and books are different animals that deserve different treatments.
And that was my introduction to this month’s novel, Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman. I had indeed already seen the movie the year before and adored it – it was one of my favorite movies of that year – and made a note to read the source material when I had time to savor it. My schedule had erupted with activity in 2018, so I vowed to save it for some time when I could savor following the two lovers across their Italian countryside. So my European vacation seemed like a perfect fit.
SPOILER ALERT: This review will contain some plot points to the novel. I will try not to reveal too much, but some moments are necessary for me to make my points.
First of all, something that irked me when the film Call Me By Your Name began to garner critical acclaim was calling it a “first gay love,” a narrative that haunted the reviews and discussions. Honestly, it pissed me off because both Elio and Oliver were clearly bi characters – if anything, this story was a coming-of-age tale about a same-sex sexual awakening. I can’t stand bi erasure, especially when bisexuality is literally in front of our faces as it is when we see Elio actively pursue both Oliver and Marzia. This is literally a bi love story unfolding in front of people’s eyes, and yet they will focus on and dismiss one whole romantic arc because another one is the larger arc of the two.
These multiple desires are underlined multiple times in the novel, when Elio describes within the first 20 pages how he is attracted to both men and women. This occurs throughout the book with various characters, up to and including the notorious peach scene, where Elio notes different sections of a peach look like the sets of genitalia of different sexes.
I have to conclude, then, that anyone who wants to argue this is a gay love story – especially after reading multiple passages of CMBYN – are deliberately dismissing a story about a person’s emerging bi orientation (which, by the way, is the largest orientation behind heterosexual, so it sweeps a whole demographic under the rug to be more comfortable with processing the story). I could perhaps see grounds for arguing that Elio is bisexual and homo-romantic. But just because Elio starts to turn his full attention towards Oliver does not mean he wasn’t attracted to Marzia. These are bi dudes, which are still a rarity in the pop culture pantheon, and people just need to accept and embrace that.
Call Me By Your Name is written in a style which is strangely both lush and delicate at the same time. If that seems like a contradiction, it’s perhaps because both the author and our protagonist, Elio, are navigating difficult, intangible feelings and themes. Love, desire, time, and obsession dominate these pages, laced with a healthy dose of teenage self-doubt. But it’s all highly relatable. Reading Aciman’s descriptions was like shooting down a portal to my own first bouts of bi passions and doubts, wanting someone and rethinking and reconsidering even reaching to “accidentally” brush someone’s hand to see if they respond, but also feeling achingly horny at the thought of catching their eye even for a breath of a second. And feeling and thinking all of these thoughts stacked on top of each other at the same time, like layers of angsty wafers. Aciman and his Proust-like passages drive right to the heart of the first flutters of desire and obsession in ways that are accessible to everyone that held a glimmer of teenage desire in their hearts.
With all that said, CMBYN is not heavy on the modern idea of plot. There are no true antagonists or external forces on this first flush of romance for Elio and Oliver, the object of his desire, other than the constraints of time and how it can tear at the fabric of our best memories. Readers must be patient with how the story unfolds in the Italian countryside. If they are not reeling over the poetry in Aciman’s prose, it could be a bit of a chore to jog through pages outlining Elio’s doubts and projections. That plus the fact Elio is recalling this love affair after the fact at times makes him an unreliable narrator, which could frustrate some readers.
Finally, the age of consent was rattling around in my brain as I read the novel. This was a point of controversy when the movie came out, since the protagonist is seventeen and his main lover is twenty-four. However, CMBYN is set in 1983 in Italy, and according to what I can find on consent laws at the time, this looks like it was considered fine for consent – even with same-sex couplings (that was on the law books since the 1880s.) However, due to the heavy Catholic influence on Italian culture (even though Elio and Oliver are Jewish), there may have been strains of guilt threaded throughout mainstream culture about sodomy. So while it was de juro for the time, as to whether modern audiences are accepting of this age gap, I leave it to readers to decide for themselves.
Oh, one other particular note: I appreciated that Aciman made sure that the lovers briefly had a conversation about HIV safety during their tryst. It really placed the romance in a specific space and time as well as demonstrated at least one proper, mature safety procedure people should have in sexual proceedings.
I have to admit on a personal level, Call Me By Your Name ticked a lot of boxes for me. I adore bi love stories, tales set in the Italian countryside, and beautifully complex characters I get emotionally invested in as we traverse the pages of their lives. I recommend the book with very few hesitations.
Oh, and my goateed seatmate? The one who groused the book was better? I will say this: As I finished up the book on a train to Seville, I teared up and clutched it to my chest with awe and appreciation. I did the same thing when I saw the film.
Different animals, but the same heart.