First loves are powerful things. They haunt us for years and we can never quite shake off the memory of them, nor the deep ache they seem to cause. The film adaptation of this novel will be released tomorrow and is already causing critical waves, but I’m so glad I came to the book first. It is a poignant, intimate, irresistible story of a love affair which develops during an idyllic Italian summer between the precocious son of a college professor and his father’s visiting student. In one sense, it is a comfortable tale of beautiful, privileged people falling beautifully in love in beautiful surroundings; but in Aciman’s hands it becomes much more than that. Told in seventeen-year-old Elio’s pitch-perfect narrative voice, it’s a catalogue of human desires, flaws, hopes and lost dreams, so sumptuous that it leaves you aching with nostalgia and feeling drunk on beauty.
Elio’s summers have always followed a familiar pattern. He comes home from school to his family’s sprawling villa near the town of B., where he and his parents spend their days swimming, sunbathing, having long, talkative lunches and playing tennis. Each summer, his father hosts a visiting postdoc student who needs peace and quiet to finish their first book, and who earns their keep as his amanuensis. Elio normally has little to do with the students: his days are filled with music, as he transcribes scores, writes pastiches of one composer in the manner of another, and spends his evenings up in B., hanging out with his friends and flirting with the girls. But this year is different. He finds it impossible to overlook the new student, Oliver, whose golden looks and casual Americanisms rub Elio up the wrong way. He wants Oliver to notice him, but all he seems to get is a cold stare: indifference, where Elio craves something else… but what? By the time he realises his feelings, they have flourished into the kind of full-bodied crush that can only happen when you’re seventeen years old, and the only thing worse than being ignored forever would be to be rejected.
This is not a paint-by-numbers romance, so those coming to the novel for a quick-fix tumble will be disappointed. I see that some reviews of the film criticise its coyness at the crucial moment but, in that way, it keeps to the spirit of the book. Much of the novel is devoted to Elio’s inner agonies of love: his dissection of every glance and conversation; his growing physical desire; and the astonishment of realising that his feelings may be reciprocated. Part of the appeal of Elio’s character is his mixture of world-weariness and innocence, which is exactly how I remember myself at seventeen. Like Elio, I thought I knew the world; I thought nothing could surprise me; and yet, like Elio, the slightest impact left me cracked open, anxious and vulnerable. It is such a beautiful picture of late adolescence. Elio feels entirely real: sublimating his need for Oliver in the arms of his girlfriend Marzia, he embodies all the callousness of his age, and it’s exactly that point which makes this feel so authentic. This isn’t a novel about finding yourself and coming out: neither of the protagonists are gay per se. They both occupy more complex positions on that grey spectrum of sexuality, finding satisfaction with women but driven to some powerful, profound self-discovery with each other. It was that fluidity, that openness and honesty, which made the story so appealing to me.
A note which may count as a spoiler: when I was speaking to a friend of mine about the film, she said: ‘Oh, but there isn’t a happy ending.’ I haven’t yet seen the film, so I can’t speak to that, but the book feels entirely right. Life doesn’t deal in ‘happy’ endings. Love affairs are most powerful when we look back on them, and Elio’s story is just as much a tale of memory – every caress, every glance rendered more potent by the passage of time – as it is an account of the moment. We don’t always get to stay with the loves of our lives; perhaps we don’t even realise they were the loves of our lives until enough time has passed for us to see clearly through the fog of passion. The final section is the most beautiful and the most haunting of the book: a story of acceptance and self-compassion and, always, the half-whispered question, ‘What if?’
I can’t resist intelligent, heartbreaking love stories and the Italian setting only made this more perfect for me: the novel reads like a modern version of A Room with a View crossed with Brideshead Revisited. It offers up this single summer as a dream of perfection, and yet says so much about its young, inexperienced narrator at the same time. If the film has achieved half of the book’s poignancy, it will be well worth seeing.
P.S. And no, after reading the book, that’s not what I thought the author would look like either. What did I think he’d look like? I haven’t the faintest idea. Maybe something like this…?