By André Aciman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
2019, 272 pp, $27
If Call Me by Your Name, the bestselling 2007 romance novel by André Aciman, was an ode to the passions and discoveries of first love, then Aciman’s new sequel, Find Me, asks us to believe in something much more perilous: second love. Which is sometimes the same as the first, and sometimes not.
The original book, and its luminous 2017 film adaptation, captured a temporary mood of possibility, like a fermata holding a single ecstatic note in our minds. Elio, a precocious and hypersexual American teenager, falls in love with Oliver, an older grad student visiting his parents’ Italian villa for a summer. Then the two go their separate ways, finding new lovers, forever changed. It wasn’t exactly a coming-out story, but rather two men’s painful discovery of their new capacity for love.
Crafting an atmosphere that delicate in fiction is no easy feat; returning to it with a sequel is walking an emotional tightrope. And Find Me does sometimes fall off, as it tries to take on more than it can manage. But the scope of its vision and the depth of love it has for its characters are profound, and there’s one noteworthy passage that brings the series’ mostly latent Jewish themes to the forefront in a satisfying way. In Call Me By Your Name, Elio wondered how Oliver could feel so comfortable acknowledging his Judaism, just another factor of the man’s openness that fascinated and beguiled him; in Find Me, Elio comes to realize that his own Judaism may be the necessary link to another man’s hidden past.
I was surprised to find that so much of the story’s focus had drifted away from the previous book and film’s emotional thrust: the core relationship between Elio and Oliver. In four snapshots spanning about a decade, Aciman follows his three heroes—Elio, Oliver and Elio’s father Sami—as they struggle to define the concept of love for themselves long after the thrill of new feelings has vanished from their lives.
In fact, the entire first half of the book is about Sami, now middle-aged and long separated from Elio’s mother, as he meets and falls for a much younger woman while taking a train to visit his son in Rome. (The audiobook is read by Michael Stuhlbarg, who played Sami in the movie.) Of all the auxiliary characters for Aciman to tease out, Sami was certainly the most compelling: The advice he gave to his son after Oliver left, in which he offered a vision of fatherly love and understanding that most teenagers can only dream of, was one of the most memorable moments of the first book. Yet once he’s in the spotlight finding love of his own, this 12-hour May-December romance can’t help but seem like a wish-fulfillment fantasy, a Woody Allen version of an older man’s sexual encounter with a gorgeous, adoring young woman. That prevents Aciman’s prose from feeling honest, even when it is deeply heartfelt.
Like his father, Elio finds some degree of happiness in a new partner of a very different age: in this case, an older lawyer in Paris named Michel, who—surprise—owns a house in the countryside. When the two venture there together, Elio encounters a mystery: a handwritten piece of music gifted to Michel’s father by an unknown friend. As Elio is now a professional pianist, he’s able to decipher that the music combines snippets of Mozart and Beethoven with the Kol Nidre, and to wonder about what this says about author and recipient alike.
Find Me abounds with these ruminations on passing time, atonements for past sins and love that can only be felt across generations and dead space. But Elio’s chapter, and the way he allows his own Judaism to inform his understanding of this stranger’s life is what best tugs on this theme. “I think all lives are condemned to remain unfinished,” Michel tells Elio, speaking about his father. “And yet there must be some small joy in finding that we are each put in a position to complete the lives of others.”
This unfinishedness is the force that ultimately crystallizes Find Me—people leaving bits of themselves for others, or beckoning across space and time to be embraced once more. The mood is wistful, but it depends a bit too much on coincidences, chance meetings and telepathic connections between characters who haven’t spoken in years. References abound to keep things from feeling too shallow: All three of our heroes are men of culture—Elio with his music, Sami and Oliver with their university studies—and can express their desires with the authority of thousands of years of Western civilization. Yet they’re all drawn time and again to fleeting, hedonistic pleasures, especially Oliver, which may actually make him more like the great thinkers than anything else.
Call Me by Your Name was willing to ruminate on pain, while Find Me moves in the direction of happy endings. So we have to ask ourselves what kind of romance we wanted for these characters. Are we willing to follow these lovelorn souls into the light, even if it’s not as bright as we thought once we get there?
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