André Aciman will put it bluntly: "Time is the main villain in ‘Find Me.’"
The sands of the hourglass cling so persistently to the author’s new novel that you can practically shake grains out of the pages. "Find Me" is Aciman’s much-anticipated sequel to his popular 2007 romance, "Call Me by Your Name." After 12 years and a 2017 film adaption, he returns to that book’s love story between Elio and Oliver (played by Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, respectively, in Luca Guadagnino’s Oscar-nominated movie).
Yes, that’s the one with the young men who use a peach to titillating ends. Spoilers for that book follow.
Readers spent a steamy, sun-dappled summer in 1980s Italy in "Call Me by Your Name." There, bright 17-year-old Elio met his father’s hunky American grad student, 24-year-old Oliver. The two began a cautious, halting flirtation that blossomed into an all-consuming connection, cut short by Oliver’s return to America. As Elio tragically learned soon after, Oliver also returned to a woman he decided to marry.
The movie ends there, though "Call Me by Your Name" the novel follows the pair a little farther, 15 and then 20 years into the future. In the time-swept "Find Me," Aciman fills some of the space in between, as the ghost of that summer shades every turn in the men’s lives.
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Aciman was eager to return to Elio and Oliver, but the film had nothing to do with it — though its fan following did.
"I had already started the book before the film was released," he says. "Indeed, over the years I had tried many times to go back to Elio and Oliver — and always felt I was basically writing ‘Call Me by Your Name’ 2.0. What the film, or more accurately the response of the world audience to the film, did was to give me the encouragement I needed to continue to write about Elio and Oliver."
The pair arrive late to the party in the sequel. Aciman divides "Find Me" into four sections, each named for revealing musical terms — tempo, cadenza, capriccio, da capo. The novel begins with Elio’s supernaturally understanding father, Samuel (played by Michael Stuhlbarg in the movie). His fateful meeting with a younger woman named Miranda on a train in Italy leads him to ruminate on the nature of time. "Living and time are not aligned," he muses, an observation the rest of the book holds holy.
"I wanted to start with the father first, because I was interested in who this man was and why was he so wise," Aciman says, "and second, because I needed to delay the appearance of Elio." Had Aciman started with Elio, he fears, the book would have become a "Call Me by Your Name" clone.
When Elio finally shows up, he’s older, an accomplished concert pianist drifting through partners in search of what he first felt that one summer. He begins a passionate affair with a man closer to his father’s age, the wealthy music lover Michel. The whirlwind disruption of his life’s cadence reminds Elio of the person he can't forget: Oliver, looming large, though largely unspoken of, for the duration of the book. When he appears in the flesh, he’s a professor still possessed of insatiable appetites and seemingly capricious in his attachments, all of whom are pale substitutes for Elio.
And by the time the novel’s central love story begins in earnest again, "Find Me" has taken us right back to where we left off.
The book feels emotions deeply, as did its older brother. It’s also soaked with its author’s trademark sensuality. In "Call Me by Your Name," there’s the infamous peach scene, of course. In Aciman’s 2017 novel, "Enigma Variations," he writes about a carpenter’s workshop with such fiery passion that turpentine becomes an aphrodisiac.
"When I write I try to know what is happening in the scene and I project myself onto the characters and ask what are they hearing, smelling, touching," Aciman says. "What do they wish to touch, to eat, or do?"
Fingers drift on foreheads during sexually charged fantasies in "Find Me"; the way Michel rubs Elio’s wrists is presented as a deep intimacy. Aciman observes the slight things, which reveal vast passions waiting to burst.
"When Elio likes having his wrists held — I have no idea where that came from, just as I have no idea where the peach scene comes from — I had to immerse myself not only in the scene itself but in his head," Aciman says.
He adds, "What the senses report is always, always more reliable, or telling."
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Also showing up again to the party: Aciman’s fascination with lovers separated in age, dancing on the line of taboo, as Elio and Oliver were in "Call Me by Your Name." Every main character in "Find Me" becomes infatuated with a partner out of sync with their own timeline.
"I have never been interested in ordinary relationships, standard relationships," Aciman says. "I leave these to other writers. I am interested in unconventional and unfettered relationships, relationships that are unfamiliar, difficult to define, to name, or to embed in a cookie cutter."
And remember the mustache-twirling bad guy in this story. In "Call Me by Your Name," life experience and a short summer kept our heroes apart. In its sequel, time unfurls its schemes on a grander scale. Two decades divide our central heroes from their happy ending, but the years play tricks on all. Samuel and Michel find love just as their final deadline approaches. And, in a story within a story that unfolds like a detective yarn, Michel’s father and his lover are parted by war, decades ago.
Humans are not on friendly terms with time, Aciman says. Still, it has its uses.
"The passing of time means that we are nearing death; the passing of time reminds us that unless we live life fully, we are indeed wasting time, wasting our lives," he says.
The years are choppy waters, and Aciman steers the search for that full life through them in the book. Its title phrase recurs like a melody. Always, the central characters yearn to find and be found. Oliver and Elio work their way back to each other — is it inevitable? Aciman does not know if he believes in destiny, but he knows we thirst for meaning.
"The most beautiful moments in life are when we suspect that certain events seem so orchestrated to suit our desires that surely they must have been scripted by a higher hand," he says. "We feel — if I may use the term — blessed."