TW: rape, bi erasure, very Dated/Weird ideas of gender and sexuality
After a bit longer than expected, and not much ado, my first review: Call Me By Your Name, published 2007, by André Aciman.
Originally, I’d hoped to read this and review for Pride month. What better book to start with than one known for being incredibly gay and the 2017 Oscar-winning best screenplay adaption?
That’s what I thought, too, before reading CMBYN.
A few days out from finishing it, and I’m glad that I didn’t review this during June.
I’m a huge believer that the best books meet and then exceed your expectations. I saw the movie first, so my expectations for the book were that Elio and Oliver would take FOREVER to get together; it would be gay; and I would feel – for a little bit – like I was transported to the Italian coast in the middle of summer.
CMBYN met all of these expectations: Elio and Oliver took almost two thirds of the book to get together; they did a lot of gay things together; and the writing was GORGEOUS. I read it in the middle of a heatwave, staying in my air-conditioned bedroom, and I still felt as if I was another summer guest in Elio’s family’s mansion.
What I was NOT expecting was for Elio to equate wanting to have sex with a man and being a woman throughout the book, to compare himself to a rape victim after having sex, and to repeatedly call himself and Oliver “man-women.” I wasn’t expecting a drawn-out account of how a character wanted to fuck every person in Thailand and almost wanted to have sex with someone who might have been a man, or might have been a woman. I’d heard nothing of Elio’s weird, dated, ideas of gender and sexuality when people were talking about or pitching CMBYN – all I heard was that this was a story for everyone, not just non-straight people, and it was a Romance for the Ages.
I don’t get it.
I’m not going to lie: the Weirdness surrounding sexuality and gender really wrecked the book for me. Beyond Elio examining his own sexuality, every comment on sexuality and someone’s gender was unnecessary. And the ways that Elio thinks about his own sexuality throughout the book are troubling. I expected internalized homophobia (from Oliver, based on the movie) but I hoped that the book would be more forgiving and understanding. I hoped that this would be a love story – and a love story it isn’t.
At its core, this is a story about wanting. Elio wants Oliver so bad, it hurts. Elio hurts. I hurt. Elio wants Oliver however he can have him – physically, mentally, and emotionally. If stories are built on what characters want, CMBYN has a rock solid foundation. But want is not the same thing as romance. Want is the stuff of obsession – and Elio is obsessed. From nearly strangling himself in Oliver’s swimming trunks to insisting that Oliver let him see his shit when they share a bathroom for the first time, Elio wants everything about Oliver. And I can’t say that Oliver wants Elio in the same way. We’re so deep in Elio’s perspective, for better and worse, for the entire novel, Oliver isn’t given as much space as I hoped.
Does Oliver think of Elio as a summer fling? Does he actually love him? I wanted more of Oliver – the person beneath his bravado, without the veil of Elio’s obsessions.
This is a gorgeous, well-crafted, agonizing book. The pace languishes, as if the book can never quite wake up from an afternoon nap. But there’s tension – if nothing else, tension carries the book forward. Aciman expertly draws tension from what Elio wants – and then twists it. I’m not sold that it’s a romance, or that Elio and Oliver could have ever been anything more than what they are (which, let’s be real, is what I was hoping for after the movie. I wanted them to be together!). I’m not upset that I read it.
I won’t read it again, but I’m not disappointed.
If you choose to read this, I hope you go in with your eyes open: this story may be about a month-long love affair between two men, but it isn’t a romance, and it isn’t very supportive of its characters queer identities.
Next up, on Wednesday, my review of the film adaption, written by James Ivory and directed by Luca Guadagnino.
What did you think of CMBYN? Did you read the book or see the movie first? Let me know! ❤