The critically acclaimed film, Call Me by Your Name, has generated a resurgence of interest in André Aciman’s novel upon which the movie is based. What a gift for readers!
Originally published in 2007, this intellectual coming of age and coming out idyll takes place at an Italian seaside villa where a college professor and his family host a young academic each summer. The visiting scholar assists the professor an hour or so each day, and is free to use the rest of the time to write, to accept dinner invitations from other seaside residents, and to enjoy the lush surroundings.
This year’s guest, 24-year-old Oliver, teaches philosophy at Columbia University, and is working with a local translator on an Italian edition for his book on Heraclitus. As expected, Oliver possesses a strong intellect. What comes as a refreshing surprise to the family and the community, though, is his charm.
Dubbed “il muvi star”, he is showered with kindnesses: specially prepared food, a lesson in how to pick the choicest pieces of fruit off a tree, and a fishing outing that lasts so long there is concern that he has drowned. A voluptuous teenager who lives nearby boldly entwines her limbs around Oliver, and while the two are in a boat together, removes her bra, without caring who sees.
In contrast, Elio, the professor’s 17-year-old son, would be mortified if anyone detected how infatuated he is with Oliver. Elio fears disapproval and town gossip, and possible repugnance or rejection by Oliver. Yet if Oliver reciprocates his feelings, Elio knows he would experience his own self-loathing. The setting is not present-day Los Angeles, where same-sex marriage is legal and June is LGBTQ Pride Month. This is a small European town in a Catholic country during the mid-1980s, where Elio’s family even finds it necessary to be circumspect about disclosing that they are Jewish.
Though guarded with those around him, as the narrator of Call Me by Your Name, Elio discloses with searing honesty his longings, passions, erotic dreams, contradictions and efforts at denial. He challenges the reader to witness his gawkiness and fearlessness, and as a bonus he makes literary, biblical and historical references that sparks curiosity and a desire for learning. What do Glaucus and Diomedes represent? What is Paul Celan’s poetry like? Which of the Monet paintings depict this town? What did Carlo Levi say in Christ Stopped at Eboli?
As an only child and the youngest present at the family dinner table, where erudite guests are frequently present, Elio’s brilliance has been marginalized and overlooked. To be able to freely discuss literature, music, art and religion with Oliver diminishes a profound loneliness that has haunted Elio for years. He risks losing that outlet if he tells Oliver what he wants. Or maybe he doesn't.
This is no ordinary coming out story.