Call Me by Your Name

Characters:    
Plot:   
Writing:    
Je ne sais quoi:    
Goodreads rating:    
Genre: Fiction, Coming of Age, Romance

Call Me by Your Name. I’m trying to think of a book that I’ve read to compare it to. I’d call it… a mixture of the longing summer love story that is Sarah Dessen, a teenage fog and angst more advanced than Twilight, topped off with some gay Italians engaged in philosophical debate (because straight love is just so yesterday).

It’s beautifully yet simply written. The book – also now a major motion picture! – is split into 3 parts.

Longing

It’s that moment before you kiss someone, when you know you both want the kiss and you know you’re about to kiss but you’re still wondering if the other person likes you and it feels like you’ll die if they don’t but you’ll die if they do, too, because then the blissful torture of not knowing will be gone and you’ll be left facing it baldly in the face with fear and embarrassment.

It’s written from the point of view of Elio, the 17-year-old Italian protagonist, playing this subtle game of subterfuge, back and forth, back and forth, with Oliver, a 24-year-old professor from Columbia. This is my favorite part of the book. It is jammed chock-full – almost overflowing – with vibrant offbeat imagery, narrating in a way that made me conjure up my pathos-filled teenage years of unrequited love, sticking anonymous notes in the locker of my crush, watching from afar with heart beating hard, reporting every single mundane little detail to my friends later. Of course, I do have a flair for drama.

I love the slightly off-kilter way the book is written, to place you in Italy where the air is muggy near the summer ocean and hugs your body before it rains and you can walk to a secluded little spot where Monet used to paint. I appreciate the light commentary on philosophers and ideas of old, intertwined with musical debates of all the classics: Mozart, Bach, Haydn. It doesn’t go very deep on these. I think I would have liked more; right now it’s just enough to feel different from the normal conversations us regular people might have, versus something truly transcending.

Did he perhaps want a third? she asked. Some people liked more than two eggs. No, two would do, he replied, and, turning to my parents, added, “I know myself. If I have three, I’ll have a fourth, and more.” 

I always tried to keep him within my field of vision. I never let him drift away from me except when he wasn’t with me. And when he wasn’t with me, I didn’t much care what he did as long as he remained the exact same person with others as he was with me. Don’t let him be someone else when he’s away. Don’t let him be someone I’ve never seen before. Don’t let him have a life other than the life I know he has with us, with me.

Action

Elio and Oliver actually do hook up. Multiple times. They carry on a summer engagement filled with lust, doubt, guilt, happiness. You get carried away in the duality of it all. How something that can feel so good and right in the wave of the moment can feel so forbidden and wrong in the light of day. We all have enough things going on in our heads and our bodies when we have sex for the first time, and it made me imagine what it would be like to have even more pressures competing for a voice as a young person discovering their homosexuality. You get the feeling that these are two beings who happen to be traveling at the same velocity for one hot Italian summer, with no regard for the future; one will say goodbye and return to a busy professorship in New York, the other will finish growing up and uncover what he is to be as an adult.

…I sensed he was still keeping a distance between us. Even with our faces touching, our bodies were angles apart. I knew that anything I did now, any movement I’d make, might disturb the harmony of the moment. 

I watched him put the peach in his mouth and slowly begin to eat it, staring at me so intensely that I thought even lovemaking didn’t go so far.

Reflection

Anything that good and that tortured must come to an end. I felt like this was the weakest part of the book. Unnecessary, really. I don’t think I wanted to be shown what life was like after Oliver left Italy, and after both Elio and Oliver aged twenty some years and saw each other again. There was a poetic justice to Elio saying his life wouldn’t make sense without seeing Oliver again before he died, and talking about their parallel selves with parallel choices, but I wish that had been up to the reader. We don’t need to be reminded of the older ghost versions of Elio and Oliver’s love story; the younger snapshot was enough. Perhaps that was the point, though. To force me to confront it. To make it real and cope with the repercussions.

Perhaps we were friends first and lovers second.
But then perhaps this is what lovers are.

Overall

Overall I recommend the book. It’s a less conventional take on a love story that can never be. It only took me a couple hours to read.

I did Google the movie afterwards. When I watched the trailer and read the reviews, I have to say, I was glad I finished the book first. The actors they cast to play Elio and Oliver, Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer, are 17 years-old and 31 years-old, respectively. In the book they are only seven years apart in age, and I generally did not feel much juxtaposition in how their ages and physical appearances were described. When I saw the trailer, I immediately anchored to how much older Armie looks, and his ridiculous grownup voice in contrast to the actor who plays Elio. There’s a ton of nuance and richness in the inner narrative that the movie cannot capture, so I can’t be surprised that they had to play up the extremes. My friend also added that they likely have more of a market playing up the older man young man relationship in the gay community.

I couldn’t help but feel like the love story was somehow wrong once I had seen the movie trailer and framed the relationship difference that way. And then I felt wrong that I judged it to be wrong. I’m not the homo-virgin police. On what authority am I saying that this is right or wrong? By any technical standard, the age of consent in the US is 16 and 14 in Italy, where the story takes place. Besides, age is simply an average metric by which we create consistency and attempt to proxy the mental, emotional, and economical maturity one has and potentially needs to make informed sexual decisions.

I suppose this is the exact sort of inner dialogue the story is meant to trigger. The last thought I’m left with is simply a reflection on love and lust and sex intertwined. How I know what it’s like to crave that love that feels so deeply that it hurts even when it’s good, and debilitates when it’s not. How I know about that inner debate in the choices we make and the things we throw ourselves into, how we know it will hurt us and how I will always choose yes. How I don’t know that any of us could say that anyone can ever be ready for the experience that is having sex for the first time, whether you are a certain age or there is an age gap or not. You can never be prepared for something that is so out of the realm of your ability to understand until you experience it. I challenge the liar or the fool to write and tell me about how their first sexual experience was rainbows and cherries on top. Liar because, well it’s not true, and fool because, if it is true, I’ll punch you in the arm on behalf of the rest of us.

Call Me by Your Name. Maybe one day.

 

Leave a Reply