Graceful debut novel by memoirist/literary scholar Aciman (False Papers, 2000, etc.), joining young love to his familiar themes of dislocation and wandering.
One could be arrested in certain parts of the world for the young love in question, which joins a 17-year-old bookish musician who is improbably well educated—not many college-educated adults have read Celan, heard of Athanasius Kircher or have a context for the Latin cor cordium—with a 24-year-old scholar with one foot in the world of the classical Greeks and another in whatever demimondes an Italian seaside village can offer. Oliver has cruelly good looks and looks cruelly at the world, a “cold, sagacious judge of character and situations.” Slathered in suntan oil, bronzing in the Mediterranean sun, he sends young Elio into a swoon at first sight. Oliver is well aware of the effect, for everyone, male and female, falls in love with him: Elio’s professor father, whose houseguest Oliver is, has appreciation for the younger man’s fearlessness in arguing over philosophy and etymology, the young village girls for his muvi star affectations, older women for his cowboy manners. Possibilities worthy of Highsmith loom, but though Oliver has his dangerous side (for one thing, he’s a cardsharp), Aciman never quite dispenses with innocence; Elio’s love has a certain chaste quality to it (“I was Glaucus and he was Diomedes”), which doesn’t lessen the hurt when the whole thing unravels, at which point intellectual gamesmanship fades away and the wisest man in the book is revealed to be Elio’s gently thoughtful father, who has unsuspected depths and offers consolation as best he can: “Right now there’s sorrow. I don’t envy you the pain. But I envy you the pain.” That pain yields a happy ending, of a sort.
With shades of Marguerite Duras and Patrick White, a quiet, literate and impeccably written love story.