Love may be André Aciman’s vehicle, but his real subject is time. In his 2007 breakthrough, “Call Me By Your Name,” the Lambda Literary Award-winning author captured a moment – a summer – in which the young Elio falls hard for the older Oliver, with whom he has a life-changing affair. Sensuously depicted, that brief relationship is recalled from various viewpoints in his new book, “Find Me,” as the author tries out different permutations of age and aging, relationships over generations, and the permanence (or lack thereof) of desire.
For the first time after three intervening novels, Aciman once again focuses on Elio (who has become a classical pianist) and those who love him. Divided into four parts, named with musical terms, each centers on a relationship, allowing Aciman ample time to muse on the nature of love and desire. In “Tempo,” the first and longest, ten years after the summer of “Call Me By Your Name,” Elio’s now-divorced father, Samuel, meets a young woman, Miranda, while on the train to visit Elio in Rome. In the second, “Cadenza,” five years later, Elio begins an affair with an older man, Michel, whom he meets at a concert in Paris. In the third, “Capriccio,” Oliver, who went on to marry a woman and father two children after the first book, mulls relationships at a party, while “Da Capo,” the final section, jumps ahead to resolve many of the issues raised earlier.
In each of these prolonged vignettes, Aciman has his characters experience the highs and lows of love, from infatuation to the deepest connections and, at times, disillusion. This, as in his earlier work, allows the perceptive in-depth discussions that so connected with readers. “You taught me how to love,” Elio tells his father. “Better yet you taught me that we have one life only and that time is always stacked against us.”
As always, Aciman writes about desire with blunt honesty, describing erotic and emotional interactions with equal clarity. Sex can be tender or not, the connection lasting or ephemeral, but it is almost always multilayered and complex. “I gave him what I thought was a hug,” recalls one character, with typical Aciman insight. “But what he returned was a real, sad, famished hug filled with sensual despair.” “We only want those we can’t have,” notes another character. “It’s those we lost or who never knew we existed who leave their mark.”
Age, however, now commands almost as much attention as sex, with which it is often linked. “Okay, I am fourteen now,” notes one character, using adolescence as a stand-in for his awkward emotional state. More often, age comes up in terms of lost opportunity or flagging physicality. “Was it too late? Am I too late?” Samuel asks, when confronted by a second chance at love. “[A] part of me would die to have you speak to my younger self,” notes another character. Ultimately, age is experience, which has its own gifts, and when two lovers trade one word – “Time” – it has many meanings.
For these classically literate characters, who talk of Bach like an old friend, musical themes serve as unifying metaphors, even as musical performance and appreciation serves as a frequent stand in for emotional connection. “Music is no more than the sound of our regrets put to a cadence that stirs the illusion of pleasure and hope,” observes one character, in a melancholy mood. Later, unspoken words linger “like a final chord resolving an unfinished melodic air.”
As these passages illustrate, Aciman tends to pile on the descriptives, urging us to accept his characters’ points of view. When these are supported, the beauty of the language – Aciman’s careful specificity – adds up to emotion. At other times, he makes sweeping pronouncements in language that may be read as either Proustian or pompous. “The past, the future, what masks they are,” muses Oliver. “Life itself was a diversion. What mattered now was unlived.”
The other issues here are some of the same that haunted the earlier work. While some critics questioned whether Oliver’s behavior in “Call Me” was appropriate – at 17, Elio was below the age of consent – there are no suggestions of abuse here. However, the cross-generational sex at times pushes credibility. Aciman has his characters pay lip service to age differences. “Kids,” says Oliver to his wife, shrugging off a crush, even as she gives him “a knowing smile.” Samuel goes deeper: “I’d begun to nurse the impression that in her eyes mine were just as beautiful. Definitely an older man’s fantasy,” he admits to himself. But the ensuing sexual encounters that leave him and his young lover “naked and sweaty” border on squirm-inducing and certainly make no concession to any physical frailty.
The book is also marred by a slight whiff of misogyny. The homosexual love stories, by their nature, focus on men. But while all these men experience desire at all ages, even as they worry about their failing bodies and fading abilities, any woman they encounter is either young and beautiful, like Miranda or Erica, from Oliver’s yoga class who “wore tight clothes with her lean calves exposed,” , or sexless, even to the straight men. Elio’s mother, for example, is merely an afterthought: “We were alone together,” says Samuel. More detailed is his resentment of a fan: “I was buttonholed by an elderly lady who said she had read all my books,” he says, noting that she had “a terrible habit of spitting as she spoke.”
Such complaints may be dismissed by the novel’s primary audience, those who fell in love with the central romance of “Call Me By Your Name.” However, for other readers who prize Aciman’s rapturous prose, they give reason to pause, breaking at least for a moment the beautiful dream.
By André Aciman
Farrar, Straus and Girous, 272 pp. $27
Clea Simon’s most recent novel is “A Spell of Murder.” She can be reached at www.CleaSimon.com.