The hot, languid days of a mid-1980s June on the Italian Riviera. For Elio, a restless, precocious seventeen-year-old, it’s a summer that he’ll never forget. The family’s house guest that year is twenty-four-year-old Oliver, an Italian-American university professor.
There have been guests before – stretching years back – but none quite like Oliver. Affectionately nicknamed ‘la muvi star’ and ‘cauboi’ by Elio’s mother, he leaves an indelible impression on Elio. The two while away days talking literature, music and languages; indulging in each other’s perceived wisdom. Quickly, with an almost electric intensity, Elio is pulled into a deep infatuation for Oliver, craving his presence, the sound of his voice, the touch of his skin, to the point at which it occupies all his waking thoughts.
‘…why this thing that could so easily cause panic felt like hope sometimes and, like hope in the darkest moments, brought such joy, unreal joy, joy with a noose tied around it. The thud my heart gave when I saw him unannounced both terrified and thrilled me. I was afraid when he showed up, afraid when he failed to, afraid when he looked at me, more frightened yet when he didn’t.’
And yet for a story that begins with such rapidity, a fast spiral down into the depths of obsession and desire, the six weeks that shape that summer are both meandering and all too brief. The poeticism of Aciman’s prose both articulates the headiness of young love in a perfect, astute way, and yet sometimes the prose weighs us down, there is a feeling of being lost in the narrative and not knowing what day it is or what has transpired, not being able to see the wood for the trees. There’s a desire to pick apart each word and savour it, but the prose sometimes gets unwieldy, and it feels all too much. But perhaps, after all, simulating that utter disorientation of first love is the point.
I love it when love stories exist not in a vacuum but as inextricably linked with a space, a place, a moment in time. When the environment is fused with a story to the extent that the place will never be the same again, will always bear the mark of what happened there.
‘They are embossed on every song that was a hit that summer, in every novel I read during and after his stay, on anything from the smell of rosemary on hot days to the frantic rattle of the cicadas in the afternoon – smells and sounds I’d grown up with and known every year of my life until then but that had suddenly turned on me and acquired an inflection forever coloured by the events of that summer.’
This is a novel that gets under your skin. I read it in twenty-four hours, on a transatlantic journey, and couldn’t put it down, even as I saw the writing on the wall, sensed what was to ultimately transpire. It’s an achingly beautiful and sad testament to a fleeting summer that ends up shaping a lifetime.
‘I look back on those days and regret none of it, not the risks, not the shame, not the total lack of foresight. The lyric cast of the sun, the teeming fields with tall plants nodding away under the intense midafternoon heat, the squeak of our wooden floors, or the scrape of the clay ashtray pushed ever so lightly on the marble slab that used to sit on my nightstand.’