Hide your peaches! Aciman, oh Aciman.
The book is split into four parts, each from the perspective of a different character, so for the purpose of this review I will be following that same structure as I talk about each section:
The longest section of the book perplexingly dedicated not to Elio or Oliver but to Elio’s father, Samuel Perlman. Now, we all collectively sighed and fell in love with Sami when Michael Stulbarg, the actor who plays him in the Luca Guadagnino film, gave that incredibly moving monologue near the end that paralleled the book. And while many of us appreciated reading and seeing a parent openly acknowledge their child’s love, despite the taboo of it being a homosexual love, I don’t think anyone really asked for a 200-page romance about Sami stumbling into a bullet-fast romance with an unlikeable woman he meets on a train after divorcing Elio’s mum.
Or, hey, maybe someone did. That person is probably to blame, then, for why this book focuses so extensively on Sami and leaves Elio and Oliver’s actual face-to-face scenes for an incredibly rushed eleven page fan service at the very end. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Deep breath, Lee, deep breath.
Miranda is the brash woman he meets. Sami is instantaneously smitten with her. They flirt, banter, she invites him to dinner with her dad who she is cooking for that night and they begin their eye-rolling, grimacing-while-reading, drawn-out love story. I truly struggled to find anything worth sticking around for. In fact, I would’ve just skipped this section entirely if it didn’t take up most of the actual book. And I probably wouldn’t be so harsh had I not bought the sequel to Call Me By Your Name, the story of Elio falling in love with Oliver, not some spin-off adventure with his father that I didn’t sign up for.
The chemistry between the two isn’t crafted expertly like Aciman’s original work with Elio and Oliver. The pacing is as if Sami and Miranda are teenagers simply eager to get each other naked. Age continuously comes up, Sami is older now and in a different stage of his life, but the pondering of time isn’t done in any refreshing, eye-opening way. It’s uncomfortable, recurring throughout the book, and reads more like Aciman’s private fantasy that he indulges through Sami. There’s no philosophy. It’s an older man getting his dick wet. Nothing new.
After Sami and Miranda meet Elio, Aciman throws the reader a bone mentioning Oliver briefly, and then the point of view switches to Elio in the second part. I devoured this section, keen to see the grown-up pianist Elio had become. The boy I read about being lovestruck and wracked with desire was there. There were remnants of him in this passage. It didn’t hold a candle to the same passion of Elio’s youthful summer but I appreciated seeing who Elio had become without Oliver.
However, yet again Aciman disappointed by throwing in a vapid, age-focused (shocker) romance with a man called Michel who repeatedly says he could be Elio’s father and is twice his age, yadda yadda. Elio being an old soul bonds with Michel significantly more than any of his previous lovers, who were comforts for just a night rather than long-lasting relationships. He finds he can’t forget Oliver and Michel encourages him to seek Oliver out and not let him slip through Elio’s fingers again. Michel seems to be the reawakening of Elio’s happiness – he helps him see that he hasn’t really been living. I’m not sure if Aciman was responding to backlash about the age gap between Elio and Oliver by making Elio date someone even older but it certainly came across that way. Cadenza and Tempo both focused a lot on the age discrepancies between the two respective couples and attempted to defend them but there was just a huge, uncomfortable elephant in the room reading Elio have sex with someone so much older. It felt inflammatory.
I also couldn’t help but feel unattached to Michel. He was more bearable as a secondary character than Miranda but I found myself glossing over his family backstory and the secrets of his childhood. They both felt like filler, cushioning for the upcoming, explosive reunion of the pair that the reader was desperately holding their breath waiting to see actually reunite. But instead of focusing on Elio’s despair without Oliver, how he hadn’t been whole since Oliver left, Aciman chose to fill more pages with narrative about side characters. If Elio and Oliver were a turkey, they had been completely hollowed-out and stuffed with the Samuels, the Mirandas, the Michels you didn’t really want to eat. I wanted meat and Aciman gave me stuffing.
Oliver’s section was even more of a step-up. Unfortunately, at this point, I was so invested that there was no going back. Perhaps it was because I had put up with so much meh that this section seemed decent. Or perhaps it was because the secondary characters were very much in the background. Either way, Oliver’s point of view was one that I did enjoy.
We knew after reading the first book that Oliver had gotten married. But in this passage Oliver plays with the idea of bedding a woman and a man, simultaneously, who are at one of his house parties. A lot of different aspects come into play, Oliver’s clear unhappiness with his stale life, the thrill of cheating since both of them have partners as well as Oliver being married, but it was the blatant bisexuality that I enjoyed reading. Since Call Me By Your Name was solely Elio’s voice I liked seeing Oliver’s mind wander, wanting a female thigh draped over one side of his body and a male thigh draped over the other.
This exploration of desire was much more reminiscent of Aciman’s original work. It was playful, forbidden, wanton. Quite the opposite of Elio’s repressed, closed-offness from the world and from love, Oliver wanted skin, a chase, to relive excitement and break out of his stagnant life. While Samuel and Elio both had desire scattered throughout their sections, Oliver’s wasn’t self-indulgent or oddly glamourised. It didn’t really happen.
That’s what I liked about it. I saw how badly Oliver needed those two guests to pay attention to him, to stay a little longer, to keep giving him lingering looks and touches, but he didn’t go through with anything. It was torturous and real. Oliver didn’t get what he wanted, whereas Samuel got very fictional instalove which doesn’t happen in real life and Elio was embraced by someone who understood and took care of him. I liked seeing struggle, grit, Oliver fought temptation and did the right thing by leaving his wife rather than cheating on her. And just as its title, this section is very lively and extremely short.
Elio & Oliver meet in Italy in the house where they fell in love and reconnect. They live together and basically adopt the son Sami had with Miranda, named after Oliver. They’re happy. For, as I mentioned earlier, eleven pages. After the unreasonably long romance of Sami and Miranda, Elio dating a man who could be his grandfather shoved down our throats and Oliver wishing he hadn’t made the mistake of getting married, the reader is rewarded with shameless fan service that lasts one tenth of Tempo.
I don’t doubt that Aciman struggled to follow up the greatness of the first book. Sequel syndrome is a common ailment that strikes most, if not all, series. There were just one too many purposeful creative choices that I couldn’t get behind. I hope Aciman is happy with the final product at least and this was the way he wanted to tell the story years later. But as a fan and reader, I can’t help but feel this is no more than a senseless cash grab to snowball off the success of the film. I read it so you didn’t have to. Treasure the first book, in all its glory and flaws, and let’s hope that Luca, when making the sequel, doesn’t use this book as inspiration.