Literary sequels are definitely a trend this year with the recent massive release of “The Testaments” and now the forthcoming publication of André Aciman’s much-anticipated sequel to his novel “Call Me by Your Name”. Readers naturally have a lot of scepticism about these beloved stories being extended. The very popular film adaptation of “Call Me by Your Name” brought the romantic story of sensitive teenager Elio and older graduate student Oliver to a much wider audience. This not only prompted fans to clamour to know what happened next between these lovers but it also encouraged Aciman to revisit their story as he said in an interview “The film made me realize that I wanted to be back with them and watch them over the years.” Many will instantly dismiss the creation of “Find Me” as a money-grabbing opportunity given the new-found popularity of the original book. Whatever the motivation for writing it, I can assure you this new novel doesn’t kowtow to fans. Rather, it thoughtfully explores the deeper meaning of desire when stretched over time and juxtaposes a few different kinds of romantic encounters which turn into profound life-changing events. That’s not to say this new novel is without its problems and it’s likely to delight and frustrate fans in equal measure.
I read “Call Me by Your Name” shortly after it was originally published in 2007 and swooned. Revisiting Elio and Oliver’s story by watching the film adaptation a couple of years ago reawakened my love for their story. But there’s an important difference between the book and film. The film ends with Elio receiving the news that Oliver is going to be married which prompts him to mournfully stare into a fireplace. However, the original novel ends with a flash forward far into the future when Elio and Oliver reunite in Italy and we learn the news that Elio’s father Samuel has died at a relatively young age. Whether their passion is reignited or not is left vague, but their reconnection is cemented. This poses an interesting dilemma for the sequel because it needs to either fill readers in on what happened up to this point or follow them after it. “Find Me” manages to do both in a way which is unique and clever.
The first section follows Samuel or “Sami”, now divorced, on a train journey to deliver a lecture and meet up with his son Elio who is now a pianist. Sami encounters a spirited much-younger woman on the train and through long intimate discussions they develop a surprisingly deep connection. The story then moves forward in time to follow Elio whose musical career has blossomed and in Paris he meets an older gentleman in an encounter which quickly turns romantic. The novel moves on again to a period when Oliver is throwing a leaving party as he’s moving with his wife to teach at another university. During this party he feels a mixture of desire towards a young woman and a young man. Only in the final (much shorter) section do we see what happens when Oliver and Elio reunite. No doubt many readers will be impatient with the long lead up to this reunion, but I admire the way Aciman patiently considers the role that time, distance, chance and the imagination play in the strange alchemy which results in desire and passion.
Nevertheless, I did have a couple of issues with the novel. There are many overt discussions between the characters about romance and the degrees of intimacy which we either allow or deny ourselves. They explore meaningful sentiments and these exchanges are not entirely unrealistic especially when spoken between new lovers who come from a certain rarefied and highly-cultured class. But they sometimes verge into such self-conscious and ponderous territory that they become ludicrously esoteric. For instance, at one point a character named Michel states: “Fate, if it exists at all,” he said, “has strange ways of teasing us with patterns that may not be patterns at all but that hint of vestigial meaning still being worked out.” This carefully-formed statement might be something a high-minded person would ruminate upon in the middle of the night but when pronounced aloud in the company of a new lover it could only be met with a slight snigger at its philosophical loftiness. I feel like it would have been more natural if we followed the characters thoughts rather than verbalizing them to each other in an occasionally pretentious fashion.
I also felt slightly disappointed with the way Aciman doesn’t grant as much space in either the original novel or its sequel to female desire. They both almost exclusively focus on the men’s romantic and sexual urges and there are multiple instances where women, girlfriends and wives are slighted in favour of a new partner. Of course, this isn’t an unrealistic depiction of what happens to many women but instead of granting a comparable degree of fictional space to their experience the author focuses almost entirely on the men’s shifting emotional landscape as if these women’s feelings don’t matter. As a consequence, many of his female characters get sidelined. The only female voice that’s granted much of a role in either of these books is that of Miranda who Sami meets on a train. But we only hear her speak rather than get access to her thoughts or a clear idea of what motivates her.
Despite my reservations about these aspects of the novel, I was drawn into the story and its emotionally complex depiction of desire and sex. Not only does the novel explore the romantic tension between people who may or may not ultimately stay together, but it shows how so many of these urges are sublimated and experienced in other ways – particularly in music. One plotline follows the existence of a secret musical score and each section of the novel itself is named after an element of music. These suggest the undercurrents of feeling which accompany us through life, especially when recalling people we still love but didn’t stay with. It’s moving how Aciman depicts this yearning which endlessly draws his characters into memories of the past, prompts them to speak subliminally to each other and hope for a possible reunion in the future – no matter how unlikely.
What Aciman captures so well in these novels is how the unexpected pull of desire forces his characters into a turning point. These potential trysts whether realised or not aren’t just about sex but about choosing a radically different form of life from what his characters were previously living. They’re about communing with an individual’s deeper intentions for what they want in life and who that individual always hoped to become. Of course, these novels are also definitely about sex and in “Find Me” Aciman continues with his famous erotic imagery. No fruit is sexually ravished this time, but he does use suggestive metaphorical language concerning another fruit: “an overripe fig that parted all the way without tearing.”
Aciman’s speciality seems to be in capturing all the heated and emotional dynamics of that first erotic encounter – which more often happens in the mind rather than in physical expression. In their distance between each other which takes place over many years and across continents Elio and Oliver are able to extend this blood-rushing sensation. It appears Aciman believes this wouldn’t have been possible if they’d always been a couple because he states in this novel “the more we know someone, the more we shut the doors between us”. In suspending the tension of their reunion he perfectly prolongs that spot between agony and ecstasy. In short, “Find Me” gave me all the feels (as the kids say.) It’s a story that encourages deep reflection and slightly mournful yearning for that moment of discovery when someone you meet completely unhinges you and arouses all the passion of new love.