Books, Reviews

Find Me book review: a flawed followup to Call Me By Your Name

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There’s a moment in Find Me, André Aciman’s sequel to his 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name, that reveals what he is trying to do. Samuel, the father of that novel’s protagonist Elio, is talking to Miranda, a young and attractive woman he’s met and fallen for on the train. The attraction is, of course, mutual.

“…Perhaps going about one’s daily life with all its paltry joys and sorrows is the surest way of keeping true life at bay.”

“So there may be no such thing as real life. Only clumsy, ordinary, day-to-day stuff—is this what you think?”

I did not answer.

“I just hope there is more than the day-to-day stuff. But I never found it, maybe because finding it scares me.”

I am sympathetic to this idea. Part of why I loved Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 film adaptation of Call Me By Your Name is that it was an emotionally resonant excursion away from all that day-to-day stuff.

And yet Find Me is flawed in ways that had me questioning the intensity of my adoration for its precursor.

Call Me By Your Name depicts the intense, all-too-brief romance between an anxious 17-year-old boy (Elio) and a 24-year-old man (Oliver) in an idyllic villa “somewhere in northern Italy”.

Beginning roughly a decade later, Find Me is far more concerned with Elio’s father Samuel than in Elio and Oliver.

Indeed, the first third of the novel is entirely from his perspective. We are therefore treated to sentences such as the following:

“Years ago, in a building not three blocks from here, I was reading Byzantine scholiasts, lost in the world of pre-Islamic Constantinople, yet the sperm cell from her pa’s gonads that would become Miranda hadn’t even been released. I stared at her.”

It’s a startling paragraph. On one level you have to admire Aciman’s refusal to give fans of Call Me By Your Name what they expect. It’s certainly not what the publisher’s marketing department want you to expect either: the back cover of the edition I read made no reference to Samuel.

We do eventually learn about what happened to Elio and Oliver. But the first third of Find Me is devoted to this burgeoning romance between his father and a young woman. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but then Samuel starts seeping into the rest of the novel, to the sections told from Elio’s perspective, even Oliver’s. It’s as if Aciman is realising as he’s writing that Samuel is who he has always been really interested in.

In D.A. Miller’s blistering critique of Guadagnino’s film, he derides Samuel and his (now ex) wife Annella as Elio’s “smother-father”, engineering their son’s love life. I strongly disagree: I find the film’s much-discussed final monologue, in which Samuel urges his son to unashamedly follow his desires, to be a key part of its emotional appeal.

But in Find Me, Aciman makes Miller’s argument for him.

“You above everyone else made me who I am today,” he has Elio tell his father. “You taught me how to love…better yet you taught me that we have one life only and that time is always stacked against us.”

To this Samuel realises that he is “indeed the luckiest father alive.”

Spare me.

There is a lot of musing in this book, whether on music (“no more than the sound of our regrets put to a cadence”, apparently) or the passage of time. Always, the passage of time.

This is a mostly frustrating, even exhausting novel.

Mostly the effect of all this is deadening: a succession of intermittently intriguing thoughts, ideas and notions and a lot of intense, albeit articulate, hand-wringing.

At one point, Aciman writes of Elio and his lover standing at a doorway “like two characters looking on as Velazquez paints his two monarchs.”

That sentence only makes sense if you understand the reference. Aciman won’t explain it for you, and the book is full-to-the-brim with such moments. He seems uninterested in rendering this rarefied world accessible to outsiders.

There are moments that work. As in previous novels, he excels at writing the small, telling details of human interaction. On flirtation, he is particularly perceptive. “I noticed that he tended to start some sentences with the word and,” he writes from Elio’s perspective, “perhaps to smooth out the jolting or missing transition between unrelated subjects, especially when broaching something slightly more probing, more personal.”

Who can’t relate to such a tendency?

A final plot reveal, casually raised in a matter-of-fact way, makes all of the previous focus on the character of Samuel momentarily worthwhile. The book’s final interaction instantly undoes that work.

This is a mostly frustrating, even exhausting novel. Good art can, indeed does, offer an escape from the “paltry emotions” of the day-to-day, as Aciman puts it, offering a window into true life. Call Me By Your Name manages it. His previous novel, Enigma Variations, accomplished the remarkable feat of pulling this off with the final word of the final sentence. Find Me, by contrast, manages only the occasional glimpse at its shadow.

Find Me (Faber, $29.99) is released in November. allenandunwin.com

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