I had thought the book would be as mawkish as a gay version of Fifty Shades of Grey. Yet I was wrong. Call Me by Your Name is, if anything, The Long Goodbye to youth.
Yes, the book is about youth, about once being young, about having lived the “luckiest” instant deigned by life. The reading is like beholding the lush teenage years irredeemably combusting into ashes behind a veil wistfully sewn by time. Thus, the book is by all means about time, too. It is about how love, passion, juvenile desire and those rampant debauchery dreams flourish resplendently and wane ineluctably—as if to be seventeen is to be the San Clemente Syndrome. It is about how happiness, once you slip through it, is forever swathed into a temporal cocoon hung on the timeline of your life to which you are impelled to turn and return and return again. Each revisit adds another fibre to it and makes happiness ever more unapproachable and harrowing.
As a bourgeois fantasy, the story is cliche. A well-bred seventeen-year old falls in love with a seven-year-older debonair stud in an Arcadia-like (hence unnamable) Italian town B. Besides anything else, a whole summer of Mediterranean sunshine, beach, and languorous afternoon nap (of course in a seashore villa well maintained by a bevy of retainers and frequented by tons of socialites) is surfeited enough to render even the reader blasé, let alone those characters. Perhaps the novel’s juvenile POV and its homosexual element dispel the persecution of its being trite. But the novel’s age-old plot (failed love and ensuing nostalgia) and all-too-familiar character setting (son of a philosophy professor; Harvard graduate and Columbia lecturer in Classes; and other beloved roles in a Woody Allen comedy) ultimately offset even the slightest sense of novelty. So to polished eyes, the novel is indeed a platitude.
Yet, every bit of the story can sting. Aciman takes time to intoxicate us in his well-paced narrative since the very start. With sporadic relish of physical arousal and brilliant metaphors, he consigns even the wariest reader into snug oblivion. As the seemingly innocuous story brews into poison, the itches (probably at your crotch) brought by the reading inadvertently become stings, twitches, and eventually pangs and anguishes. Thus when Aciman’s poignant punchlines (there are a fair amount of them, for instance, Elio’s father’s tear-jerking talk) burst in, we, already debilitated by his toxin for so long, can barely resist the sorrow and pain inflicted by the loss of love or the withering of the young.
The story climaxes in the two protagonists' (Oliver and Elio) convivial three-day trip to Rome. They call it, with wit, an elopement "with return-trip tickets to seperate destinations." That is also when the novel's writing reaches its apogee. The relocation functions surprisingly well. It at once aerates the novel (which was originally set in the all-too saccharine Arcadia: B town) and provides ampler materials for the author to spawn more pensive yet appetizing tropes and synecdoches.
Leaving aside the love cliche and those pedantic references to Stendhal and his like, Call Me by Your Name is a groovy—and perhaps more important to some people, bawdy—coming-of-age novel. While its inconsistent predilection to refute time is doomed to fail (I can hear Borges’s wail here), it will surely succeed in reminding you of those I-just-miss-them-when-I-cry lovers you once had or dumped. If you do not mind such a (masochistic) reminder, the book is definitely a good read to kill time. (Read it before the film comes out!)