This is being lauded as the modern gay classic. Which of course means I had to read it. Plus, it was just made into a movie and, now that I’ve finished the book, I cannot wait to watch it! I really don’t have anything else to say as an intro here. This might be my shortest one ever. I guess that’ll make up for how long and gush-y this review is going to be.
“He came. He left. Nothing else had changed. I had not changed. The world hadn’t changed. Yet nothing would be the same. All that remains is dreammaking and strange remembrance.”
Elio is 17 when Oliver comes to spend the summer at his family’s Italian villa. Every summer, Elio’s family hosts a scholar at their home, providing them a place to live while they work on a manuscript or other scholarly pursuit. But this summer things are a little different than normal, because Elio and Oliver are drawn to each other with a desire that makes them both hesitant. But when their walls finally drop, the intimacy they find is such that, though short in duration, will mark them both for life.
For starters, let me just say that no words I can come up with here will do justice to the words of this novel. Aciman’s writing is…everything. It’s smooth, smart, evocative, precise, meaningful. The language of this book is a masterpiece all on its own, and would be regardless of the story it was telling. It conveys such a complete and insightful picture of young lust, capturing with finesse and deep understanding the wholeness and all-encompassing-ness of it, the recklessness of it, the total paralyzing self-doubt and unsureness of it. The capture of Elio’s thoughts and feelings rings with such truth, and is told with such care, that there is almost an air of nostalgia in the writing; nostalgia for a time in life when young love supersedes everything. And it’s mesmerizing because that kind of youthful passion is something we can all understand, remember, empathize with.
In addition to that, the build-up to the moment of realization for Elio and Oliver is phenomenal. For over half the book the back-and-forth tension of two young people unsure of the other’s feelings and too shy to ask grows and grows until we finally, character and reader alike, get our moment of release. And it is everything we would want it to be, full of relief and shame and yearning for more and regret. Again, all the markers of first love are there in spectacular illustration. Then, as the story moves forward, what I love most is that there is no let down of language or tension even though the “major moment” has already happened. With an expiration date on their time together, the strain of that impending good-bye plays perfectly against the live-in-the-moment reality of new love. The tone and atmosphere of this novel start on point and remain so until the end.
On top of my obvious awe of this masterpiece of fictional writing, I really want to try and get my thoughts out about the “gay” aspect of the story. Although this is, as I mentioned, being called a major modern day gay classic, it was not written by an LGBTQ+ author. That does not, in any way, take away from the beauty of what Aciman wrote, but I think, in light of the recent push for #ownvoices literature, it’s worth a mention and discussion. Although that doesn’t lessen what is in these pages, what does that mean for it as a symbol in gay literature? I don’t know how I feel about it yet… Having just finished, I need more time to think it through, but for now, suffice it to say that I wonder. Interestingly, I read an interview with the author in which he said he didn’t start out planning to write a m/m romance, but that that’s where the story took him. In reading I find that I believe that; it’s so clear that he followed the passion in his words to the end they found for themselves…so how does that play into this discussion? In a related point, it felt, to me, that this book spoke more to love for other humans (in a bisexual or pansexual way, if it’s something you want to fully label), as opposed to a specifically “typical” male/male gay love. It’s even mentioned at one point in the novel, them being “just two beings,” in the moment when they first consummate their relationship. That’s something I really identify with and understand. And I also wonder why that’s not a more often talked about aspect of the story. Yes, I understand that the connection Elio and Oliver share that summer is one they never find again, with anyone else, and that makes it something particularly special. So, as the main relationship in the novel, I also understand the lean to call it a m/m focus. But for me, it seemed to be about a greater love, a human love, and I sort of wish that takeaway was more widely seized on.
One other thing, and probably the main reason that I’m not giving this book a full 5 stars, is that I a little bit wish the last section wasn’t included. I feel like the impact of the story would have been greater, and stayed in the nostalgic light that I loved (instead of starting to lean towards a sad or regretful one), had the last section not been included. If Elio and Oliver’s tale had ended at the end of their summer, I think that heartbreak would have been a perfect ending, and in line with the fleeting young love feel of the rest of the novel. Although the tone of the last section still fit with the rest, the timeline seemed rushed in comparison. We have hundreds of pages for their few weeks over the summer together, and only a few dedicated to flying through the next 15 years of their lives…their separate lives. And I guess that I see Aciman wanting to highlight the importance of these youthful relationships, these young loves, these first “falling” feelings – that just because we are young, that doesn’t mean the intimacy isn’t real, the connection isn’t genuine, and that it may not be replaceable or re-find-able. But I would have loved to be left mourning the vestiges of that summer love alongside Elio and Oliver, without having to find out immediately how separation can ring death to that kind of closeness.
Regardless of that last paragraph concern/wish, I will still call this novel a masterpiece. It is the most intellectual romance story I’ve ever read. And it’s beautiful in that singularity. I highly recommend it, but with that recommendation comes a warning. Be prepared to be swept away from the first words. Be prepared to want to visit the Italian Rivieria immediately. And be prepared to find yourself yearning to get in touch with your first love. Because those feelings are never truly forgotten. Gorgeous and intoxicating.
And now, get ready for an inundation of quotes. What, did you think after all that incessant praise of the writing I wouldn’t give you an over-abundance of examples?
“I’d waited and waited in my room pinioned to my bed in a trancelike state of terror and anticipation. Not a fire of passion, not a ravaging fire, but something paralyzing, like the fire of cluster bombs that that suck up the oxygen around them and leave you panting because you’ve been kicked in the gut and a vacuum has ripped up every living lung tissue and dried your mouth, and you hope nobody speaks, because you can’t talk, and you pray no one asks you to move, because your heart is clogged and beats so fast it would sooner spit out shards of glass than let anything else flow through its narrowed chambers. Fire like fear, like panic, like one more minute of this and I’ll die if he doesn’t knock at my door, but I’d sooner he never knock than knock now.”
“Everyone goes through a period of traviamento – when we take, say, a different turn in life, the other via. Dante himself did. Some recover, some pretend to recover, some never come back, some chicken out before even starting, and some, for fear of taking any turns, find themselves leading the wrong life all along.”
“But sleep would not come, and sure enough not one but two troubling thoughts, like paired specters materializing out of the fog of sleep, stood watch over me: desire and shame, the longing to throw open my window and, without thinking, run into his room stark-naked, and, on the other hand, my repeated inability to take the slightest risk to bring any of this about. There they were, the legacy of youth, the two mascots of my life, hunger and fear, watching over me…”
“His face, which seemed both to endure my passion and by doing so to abet it, gave me an image of kindness and fire I had never seen and could never have imagined on anyone’s face before. This very image of him would become like a night-light in my life, keeping vigil on those days when I’d all but given up, rekindling my desire for him when I wanted it dead, stoking the embers of courage when I feared a snub might dispel every semblance of pride.”
“My heart is beating like crazy. I am afraid of nothing, so why be so frightened? Why? Because everything scares me, because both fear and desire are busy equivocating with each other, with me, I can’t even tell the difference between wanting him to open the door and hoping he’s stood me up.” *This quote is like the first half of the book in a nutshell. I love it!*
“I was on the cusp of something, but I also wanted it to last forever, because I knew there’d be no coming back from this.”
“From this moment on, I thought, from this moment on – I had, as I’d never before in my life, the distinct feeling of arriving somewhere very dear, of wanting this forever, of being me, me, me, me, and no one else, just me, of finding in each shiver that ran down my arms something totally alien and yet by no means unfamiliar, as if all this had been part of me all my life and I’d misplaced it and he had helped me find it.”
“I smiled back faintly, knowing I was already clamming up, shutting the doors and windows between us, blowing out the candles because the sun was finally up again and shame cast long shadows.”
“Perhaps we were friends first and lovers second. But then perhaps this is what lovers are.”
“In your place, if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it. Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we’d want to be forgotten is no better. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste! […] But remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. Most of us can’t help but live as though we’ve got to lives to live, one is the mockup, the other the finished version, and then there are all the versions in between. But there’s only one, and before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now there’s sorrow. I don’t envy the pain. But I envy you the pain.”
“We had found the stars, you and I. And this is given once only.”