It was only after I had seen the movie “Call Me by Your Name”—which was nominated for four Oscars at this year’s Academy Awards and won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay—did I realize that it was based on a book. The movie was excellent, but the book was not very well known prior to the movie. It would be fair to say that it had not really made a “splash” in literary circles, which was somewhat unusual as most movie adaptations are made of books that are highly acclaimed. I typically do not like to watch the movie adaptation of a book before reading it first, but in this case, I wanted to find out more about the book that had inspired such a beautiful movie.
Call Me by Your Name is what is commonly referred to as a “coming-of-age” story of an adolescent going from youth to adulthood. The adolescent here is a 17-year-old American-Italian boy named Elio, the setting is Italy, and the time period is in the 1980s. While the story is being narrated by Elio twenty years later, it is almost entirely an account of the one summer when a visitor, Oliver, comes to stay in Elio’s house. Elio’s father is a professor, and every summer, he takes in a doctoral student as a house guest for six weeks as an apprentice of sorts, who helps him with some academic work while simultaneously engaged in some academic activity of his own. In the case of Oliver, he is working on a manuscript for a book, and a summer in the beautiful Italian countryside seems like the perfect place to do it in.
Not every “coming-of-age” story is about love and sex, but this one is. And what makes it especially distinctive is that both Elio and Oliver are male. Elio feels an overpowering attraction towards Oliver from the minute he sees him, and Oliver eventually reciprocates after holding out for a few weeks. The book chronicles their intense and passionate relationship over that summer, and while this is not one of those “happily ever after” love stories, it represents the most meaningful relationship of their lives for both Elio and Oliver, as they realize when they get a chance to meet years later.
While the movie adaptation of Call Me by Your Name was referred to as a “gay” love story, I found it interesting that neither the word “gay” nor the word “homosexual” are ever mentioned in the book. Of course, social norms were a lot less liberal in the mid-80s, and while Elio often feels “shame,” especially after sex, he never ever feels that it is wrong to experience the overwhelming love he feels for Oliver. The story is told entirely in the form of an internal monologue in Elio’s head, making us experience the depth of his emotions in all of their complexity. The fact that these are no different from the teenage angst experienced by a “heterosexual” adolescent points to the universality of human emotions. Not everyone may be able to identify with the attraction Elio feels for another man, but we can all identify with the intense, overpowering, and often tortured emotions that typically accompany the throes of first love.
Call Me by Your Name
Author: André Aciman
Original Publisher and Date: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (January 2007)
Reprint Publisher and Date: Picador Media Tie-in edition (October 2017)
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.