Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman — Book Review & Discussion
This critically-acclaimed romance novel could have been much more than that
Call Me By Your Name is a romance novel written by André Aciman. The romance is between a 17-year-old named Elio and Oliver, a 24-year-old graduate student studying pre-Socratic philosophy. He is staying at Elio’s house over the summer to work on his dissertation, as Elio happened to be the son of a professor.
The first stage of the story begins with Elio secretly crushing on Oliver, annoyed at the way he says, Later! because he seems so nonchalant about Elio’s affections. It was soon revealed, in the second stage of the book, that Oliver’s apparent nonchalance was just to hide his ‘forbidden’ feelings towards the teenage son of a professor he was working with.
The two eventually became intimate with each other, only to have Elio resent Oliver in the end because he feels disgusted by himself. Oliver tried to coax Elio into being with him again, and Elio eventually came to love him again. The novel ends after the pair’s trip to Rome, and Oliver has to stop seeing Elio because he went back to America. Elio sees Oliver years later only to find out Oliver is already married to a woman.
The novel was set in the past, the date is uncertain but because the pair still depended a lot on sending physical letters to communicate, it indicates that it did not take place in the modern-day. So, internalized homophobia was a prevalent theme throughout the novel.
The age gap between Elio and Oliver also suggested pederasty, a practice common in Ancient Greece. Indeed, Ancient Greek philosophy was discussed often in the book, from Elio and Oliver’s intellectual banter to Oliver debating the professor, Elio’s father, during family dinners.
However, the relationship between an older man and a boy also involves a power dynamic that may be unhealthy. Although Elio’s parents seem supportive of their relationship, Elio himself has frequent uncomfortable moments. It is unclear whether the nature of his discomfort stems from the fact that he fears homosexuality or Oliver himself as someone that Elio perceives as being above him.
Oliver’s angst towards the relationship was revealed to stem from being raised by super heteronormative and conservative parents, but Elio’s angst must have originated elsewhere. Never did Elio’s parents ever ask him about how he felt being with Oliver, whether he felt like he had less power, or if he was ever coerced into doing things he did not fully consent to.
The blurring of boundaries is also a strong theme of the novel. In relationships, usually, the blurring of boundaries tends to suggest an unhealthy dynamic.
However, Aciman presents this differently. The title Call Me By Your Name refers to how Elio refers to Oliver as ‘Elio’ and vice versa. This seems strange unless the reader catches on that this tradition represents how they see each other as inseparable as one and the same.
Again, a reference to the Ancient Greek myth wherein Plato says that humans were once the same creature with four arms and four legs, but the gods separated them into two and now they have to search to find their soulmate. Calling each other by their own name epitomizes the other as their inseparable half.
What made me like the book was how well the author characterized Elio, as the book was written from his first-person perspective.
This point of view was useful because it deliberately limits the story in the eyes of an emotionally complex, cognitively intelligent, but overall naïve young boy hungry for affection and novelty. Viewing the world from Elio’s perspective does two things:
Firstly, it allows for highly emotionally complex writing, illustrating his conflicting emotions, desire versus shame, for instance. Elio’s longing for Oliver was eloquently demonstrated and concentrating the narrative on Elio’s internal thoughts and narrow external experience placed the reader in his shoes, leading us to sympathize with him and even vicariously experience the feeling of falling in love.
Secondly, it presents Oliver in a mysterious way, as until now it is unclear whether Oliver really loved Elio or simply needed him for a short-fling. It also opened a lot of unanswered questions:
- Did Oliver ever attempt to subtly manipulate Elio in any way?
- Did he have any reservations over Elio’s age?
- Why did he suddenly move on to a woman instead of committing to Elio?
Had these questions been answered in the novel, for instance through a third-person narrative or through Oliver’s first-person narrative, this would remove the mysteries surrounding his character or even make him unsympathetic had it been true that his love towards Elio is morally corrupt in some sense.
While the choice of putting the narrative from Elio’s first-person perspective is great, an example is needed to truly understand the effect of this:
“You’re thousands of miles away but no sooner do I look at this window than I’ll think of a bathing suit, a shirt thrown on on the fly, arms resting on the banister, and you’re suddenly there, lighting up your first cigarette of the day — twenty years ago today. For as long as the house stands, this will be your ghost spot — and mine too, I wanted to say.”
Elio internalizes the world around him using poetic beauty, and in vivid detail, as illustrated in the quote above. Not only do details about his lover feel viscerally real and present, despite having been separated from one another for years, his hurtful feelings are also transmitted in a nuanced and sympathetic manner.
The author’s ability to arrange words beautifully constituted significantly to this effect, for instance using the rhyme “today” and “say” — and this is just quoting two sentences.
While there is nothing I particularly dislike about the style, the themes in his book raised a lot of contention. To note the obvious, the power dynamic between the experienced Oliver and the barely-nearing-adulthood Elio is problematic in real life.
Although the age gap isn’t as bad as Nabokov’s Lolita, the controversy surrounding such an age gap in hetero relationships is often discussed, but less so about LGBTQ+ fiction. Perhaps this is because, in hetero relationships, the power dynamic is a combination between age plus gender inequality.
More specifically, girls tend to be infantilized in many ways, such as not being able to do a lot of activities males are allowed (young girls are not allowed to travel alone at night, but boys can), therefore making the age disparity more problematic.
In the novel, Elio is treated almost like an adult by his parents, being allowed to go to Rome just with Oliver, which if he was born female he most likely would not be allowed due to accusations of indecency. As a girl, I am highly conscious of this, and therefore I choose to apply the same safety principles to Elio even if he is a male. From that lens, his relationship with Oliver is problematic and I dislike how this is not touched on at all in the novel.
With their openly unquestioning approach of supporting their son’s relationship, Elio’s parents ended up taking the role of stock characters who serve nothing to the narrative apart from acting as a stepping stone to drive the main plot.
Indeed, perhaps due to Elio’s obsession with Oliver, none of the other characters in the book seem to have complex personalities. If the author could apply Elio’s complex analysis of human character to the other less important characters, Call Me By Your Name wouldn’t just be a critically-acclaimed romance novel — but a tour de force literary masterpiece.