In André Aciman’s new novel, Elio and Oliver reunite at last. Eventually.
Call Me By Your Name is a book that throbs with desire. André Aciman’s 2007 novel (and the basis for the 2017 film of the same title) is a portrait of adolescent love and lust, experienced for the first time with an intensity that’s almost frightening in how all-consuming it feels. And Aciman devotes himself to chronicling every fleeting fantasy, every caress, with a fervor that matches what his characters are feeling.
Find Me, Aciman’s new sequel to Call Me By Your Name, is gentler and more melancholy than its predecessor. It’s not about first love but about true love, and specifically true love that is marred by lives lived out of sync. It’s about loving someone at exactly the wrong moment in time and finding your way through everything that follows regardless.
Elio and Oliver, the lovers from Call Me By Your Name, are the couple at the heart of Find Me, just as they were the heart of the earlier book. Their connection was both first love and true love, and the fact that their parting was a matter of timing is what gives Find Me its thematic weight: Their romance came at the wrong time — Elio was 17 and Oliver 24, and shortly after they said goodbye Oliver decided to marry a woman — and now both of them are living with the consequences.
But it takes a long time for Aciman to find his way back to Elio and Oliver. Find Me is a four-act book, and the first and longest act — set 10 years after the events of Call Me By Your Name — is about Elio’s father Samuel and his budding romance with a woman named Miranda who is half his age. Elio takes over as the point-of-view character in the second act after a five-year time jump, and Oliver in the third after another time jump. However, it’s not until the fourth act that the two lovers are finally reunited.
That delay is effective at building tension. But it’s also frustrating, because it means we spend a lot of time with Samuel and Miranda as Aciman hammers home his chosen themes. And Samuel and Miranda are not particularly interesting characters.
Almost all of Aciman’s characters talk like horny philosophy textbooks. Sometimes it works better than others.
Samuel and Miranda spend most of their time on the page together navigating the age gap between them, and it’s clear that for Aciman, that gap is not incidental. It’s a key to the theme of Find Me: Samuel and Miranda have met each other at the wrong moment in time, because for most of Samuel’s life, Miranda either was not born or was too young, and so although they were meant for one another their circumstances kept them apart, and now they will have only the end of Samuel’s life together.
It’s a romantic notion, and Aciman writes it in his most exalted, lyrical prose, letting his characters pile one destiny-driven vow on top of another in cascading sentences: “There will be no sorrow from me, and none from you,” Samuel tells Miranda, “because you’ll know as I’ll know that whatever time you’ve given me, my entire life, from childhood, school years, university, my years as a professor, a writer, and all the rest that happened was all leading up to you.”
But the age difference between them also means Aciman is doubling down on the age gap between Elio and Oliver in Call Me By Your Name, which was significant enough to cause a controversy during the film adaptation’s Oscar campaign. And the age difference feels all the more pointed in Find Me, because where Elio and Oliver were fully distinct characters with coherent psychologies and opposing points of view, Miranda and Samuel exist only as shallow outlines: Samuel represents wise and cosmopolitan age and Miranda is his perfect reflection in a young and vigorous body. That is the dynamic that Aciman seems interested in to the exclusion of all else, and the second time he writes it, it’s less convincing than the first.
Because Samuel and Miranda aren’t real characters, when they settle into the quasi-symposium that in Aciman’s worldview is the natural prelude to sex, their rapport doesn’t quite ring true. Which is surprising, because usually those symposiums work for Aciman even when they shouldn’t.
Nearly all of Aciman’s characters speak in philosophical paragraphs that aren’t meant to resemble normal human speech patterns so much as create an opportunity for Aciman to throw ideas around: In Aciman’s novels, discourse is what creates the possibility for sex, so sex is always both preceded and followed by debates about eros and art and the body.
And Aciman generally writes those debates with an endearing disregard for the rules of psychological realism like “show don’t tell.” With the occasional exception of Oliver, all of Aciman’s characters know exactly how they feel at any given moment and are more than happy to explain it to one another in exacting, precise detail. Those explanations rarely feel realistic, but when Oliver and Elio were delivering them to each other in both Call Me By Your Name and toward the end of Find Me, they were so drenched in emotion that I was more than willing to go along for the ride.
But the emotion never quite comes through with Samuel and Miranda, because Aciman hasn’t made the effort to turn them into more than flat types. As a result, their symposiums feel like just that: symposiums, without the undercurrent of love and desire and fear that made Elio and Oliver’s symposiums so compelling.
Things improve slightly in Find Me’s second act, when Elio takes center stage as the point-of-view character, bringing with him an air of self-deprecation that goes a long way toward making all of his speechifying palatable. He’s now in his 30s, and in a continuation of the age difference theme, he’s falling in love with a man who is twice his age.
Elio’s new partner is named Michel, and he is the only person in Elio’s life who can compare to Oliver: “There’s only been the two of you,” Elio tells Michel. “All the others were occasionals. You have given me days that justify the years I’ve been without him.” Both Michel and Elio know that Oliver is Elio’s true love, but in the 15 years since Call Me By Your Name, Elio has been able to live his life openly and unapologetically enough to find a runner-up second love.
Oliver, who finally makes his first appearance in the third act, has not been so lucky. Because he chose to reject Elio and with Elio his true self, he hasn’t been able to make an authentic connection with anyone since their parting 20 years ago. He is amicable with his wife because they make a good team, and he half-heartedly pursues trysts with friends of both genders. But when a house guest plays for him the same piano piece that Elio played for him in Call Me By Your Name, Oliver is overcome with memories of Elio. “I knew,” he thinks, “that some arcane and beguiling wording was being spoken about what my life had been, and might still be, or might never be, and that the choice rested on the keyboard itself and me.”
It’s in Oliver’s storyline that Find Me delivers its most achingly lovely passages, because Oliver is the only one of Aciman’s characters who is capable of self-deception, who does not always know immediately and instinctively which of his feelings to trust and how to give voice to them. That makes Oliver’s arc a tragedy, but it also means that only in his narration are multiple layers of emotion allowed to exist and mingle moodily on the page together.
It takes until the novel’s fourth and final act for Oliver and Elio to finally meet on the page in a tender, lyrical epilogue that is the culmination of all the meditation on wasted time that came before. Since all Aciman’s readers really want is to see Oliver and Elio together again, all that came before this reunion made for a frustrating and occasionally clumsy wait — but the payoff makes you feel every bit of the years of separation both characters had to live through, waiting for their lives to sync up once again.
And as the pair comes together, Aciman’s prose is no longer filled with the all-consuming passion that animated Call Me By Your Name. Instead, he narrates their encounter with a sweetness and tentativeness that fits this gentle, melancholy book.
“Time,” says Oliver, and Elio understands “that what he’d meant was that too much time had gone by.” But soon, Elio realizes that “despite two decades we were not a day older than the two young men we’d been so long ago.”
What makes Find Me work, when it does work, is that it allows you to feel both of those concepts at once: Time goes by, terrible and insurmountable — and also it doesn’t matter at all.
Author: Constance Grady