There’s hardly a genre less hospitable to acts of blatant fan service than literary fiction. Beyond traditional storytelling, novels contain within their long history the desire to surprise and innovate, and works that retread familiar territory are not often received well among the critical masses. In the 21st century, where shorter and more plainly entertaining modes of storytelling exist all around, novels should at the very least summon something deeper in readers than simply satisfaction.
Sequels, filled as they are with the potential for unnecessary elongation, are especially prone to this kind of development. Comics and superhero films use sequels and prequels as a means of canon-building (and of course, money-making). Romances extend their timelines in order to facilitate an endless narrative of breaking up and getting back together again. Back when it was published in 2007, you wouldn’t have thought André Aciman’s gay romance, Call Me By Your Name, to be fertile ground for this sort of treatment.
In the novel, 17-year-old Elio and 24-year-old Oliver begin a brief, storybook-like romance, swayed by the serendipity of time and circumstance and the languorous summertime beauty of rural Italy. The end of their affair is premeditated — Oliver is a grad student visiting from America, and his inevitable departure is as much a player in the couple’s passion as anything else. Their short timeline, their age difference, and that they are both men add a ripe element of tragedy to the story.
In 2017, Luca Guadagnino‘s acclaimed film adaptation brought a legion of new fans to Aciman’s novel. Now comes Find Me, the official sequel. The narrative picks up a decade or so after the end Call Me By Your Name, when Oliver eventually leaves Elio at the train station. Now Elio is a pianist living in Rome, Oliver is an academic living in New England and Samuel, Elio’s father, is newly divorced and living a lonesome life by the sea. As it turns out, Elio and Oliver’s fated reunion is relegated to just a few pages at the end of the book; the focus of Find Me is instead on the psychodrama of flirting with new beaus while brooding over old flames.
The novel’s first section follows Samuel as he’s taking a train to visit Elio in Rome. A young woman sits down across from him, and he’s immediately taken by her nonchalant beauty. They strike up a conversation and, because of the woman’s forthright personality and their apparent chemistry, they quickly develop the baseline sense of understanding that accompanies early-stage romance. But Sami (as she calls him; her name is Miranda) is an older man, and she’s Elio’s age, so the banter doesn’t develop into tension until she makes the first move.
As Miranda takes him with her to visit her sick father, the pair form a sort of us-against-the-world shorthand designed to separate them from the (presumably less sophisticated) masses. “Is it that you don’t like people, or that you just grow tired of them and can’t for the life of you remember why you ever found them interesting?” she asks him, foregrounding the novel’s preoccupation with being misunderstood. They eventually meet up with Elio, attend what they call “vigils” (Rome, for both Sami and Elio, is a place brimming with bittersweet memories) and consummate their blossoming love.
To say that the story is concerned with the cyclical nature of time would be an understatement. Find Me‘s next section is Elio’s, and it concerns a fling with a much older man named Michel. Like the tentative flirtation between Sami and Miranda, theirs is equal parts delicate and tender, and Elio’s internal drama punctuates every small development. His asides not only account for the lost time between Find Me and Call Me By Your Name, but also establish a link between father and son, one bound by romantic frustration. For his part, Michel is drawn to Elio because he stands in as a surrogate for his own son, from whom he is largely estranged. (Draw whatever inference from that you will.)
The issue with these first two sections, and with the book as a whole, is that the characters’ psychodramas, when externalized, amount to little more than vague philosophical tête-à-têtes. These intellectual reveries are charming at first, but in repetition they mostly serve to distance the characters from the realities of their suffering. As such, their sudden romantic entanglements feel like convenient bandages to much deeper wounds.
Sami and Miranda, we are to believe, later have a child and live together by the sea, but Elio loses interest in Michel as soon as he’s finally able to reckon with his own lasting feelings for Oliver. At best, these meet cutes feel a little unrealistic; at worst, some of the more graphic scenes feel due for a nomination from 2019’s bad sex awards. (During sex, Miranda calls Sami’s penis her “lighthouse”.)
Oliver’s section, the book’s third, does little to alleviate the monotony. We find him in New York City for work, unhappily married to his wife and pining after two near-strangers (one man, one woman). The fact that the strangers are a composite stand-in for Elio is obvious even before Oliver admits it himself. He spends the majority of this section hosting a party, ignoring the majority of his guests, and gazing longingly into the Hudson River. It’s the story’s weakest section, ignoring the specifics of Oliver’s life entirely and giving its more minor characters no purpose beyond motivating Oliver to going back to Italy. His research, a large symbolic force in Call Me By Your Name, is hardly mentioned, and his wife stands as a nameless character without motivations of her own.
The upside to Find Me is that Aciman’s prose is as gorgeous and measured as ever. Although the story’s philosophical insights don’t amount to much, he certainly puts up a good fight trying to convince the reader otherwise. The act of reading the novel itself is a pleasurable one, even if ultimately disappointing. Some threads are quite fascinating. A story about Michel’s father (sons and fathers, once again) and his possible fling with a talented Jewish composer, takes up a small portion of the second section, and Miranda’s tempestuous relationship with her sick father provides some of the book’s most spirited passages. A dissertation about time that the man, a professor, has recently read provides probably the most clearheaded elucidation of the novel’s themes as a whole:
“Time couldn’t care less what we think of time, because time is just a wobbly, unreliable metaphor for how we think about life. Because ultimately it isn’t time that is wrong for us, or we for time. It may be life itself that is wrong.”
Well, if the metaphors are flimsy, at least Find Me recognizes it. Is this meant to denounce fate, or to champion it? If Elio and Oliver’s coda of reconciliation is any clue, Aciman might as well have said “love finds a way”. Their happily ever after does just what literary fiction shouldn’t, providing an unambiguous ending to the tentative, fleeting love of the original source material. Call Me By Your Name‘s greatest strengths are in the tension and uncertainty of Elio and Oliver’s love, and it is all the more beautiful because, even if consummated, it had to end. Find Me sticks an addendum of fated certainty onto a love story made all the more passionate by the restrictions of time, cheapening it with its own closed-ended revisionism.