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BOOK REVIEW

A luminous first novel of a young man's longing

Call Me by Your Name
By Andre Aciman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 248 pp., $23

For 17-year-old Elio, it was lust at first sight, albeit complicated by twinges of distaste and intimidation, and fueled by the need to be understood and appreciated. The sensitive, inquisitive, and extraordinarily well-read teenager was used to the parade of young academics who took up residence in his family's Italian villa each summer to work on some scholarly project or other. But 24-year-old Oliver, recruited by Elio's expatriate professor father from an American university, was different. Strikingly handsome, effortlessly charismatic to men and women of all ages, yet politely indifferent and thoughtlessly dismissive, he created an allure that Elio (as well as most of the young people in the community's social orbit) found irresistible.

The gradual acknowledgement of the attraction between Elio and Oliver forms the dramatic arc of the luminous new "Call Me by Your Name." The debut novel of the Egyptian-born memoirist and literary scholar Andre Aciman ("Out of Egypt," "False Papers" ) is a coming-of-age story focused not so much on sexual awakening as on a kind of sexual quickening and identity exploration unfurled through poetic ruminations on longing and obsession.

Narrated by Elio, the work unfolds in a casual, slightly offhand fashion that lets us read between the lines of the young man's narrative. Elio's initial attraction to Oliver is on paper -- reading his application form months earlier, the bookish Elio senses "promises of instant affinity." Both are Jewish, both scholars -- Elio transcribes music and loves to discuss erudite authors, Oliver is finishing up a work on Heraclitus .

But soon after Oliver's arrival, Elio's focus takes on the heat of sensual longing. He begins to really examine his house guest, describing "the pale, soft skin of his soles, of his throat, of the bottom of his forearms . . . glistening and smooth as the underside of a lizard's belly. Private, chaste, unfledged . . . It told me things about him I never knew to ask." That heightened sensitivity and sensuality is only exacerbated by the hot sun and cool water of the Italian Riviera, with visitors constantly dropping by for meals and endless post-lunch hours lounging around in bathing suits.

Aciman deftly charts a burgeoning relationship that both parties want and fear. Elio's crush blooms quickly, while Oliver seems to toy with his affections, friendly and engaging one moment, indifferent, even hostile the next. But over the course of a short six weeks, a tentative friendship blossoms, and undercurrents of romantic fascination and compulsion gradually evolve into a brief, yet intensely shared intimacy. It is a relationship in which each is ultimately so transparent to the other that consummation feels like a form of fusion, prompting the private dictum, "Call me by your name."

The novel is richly, sensuously detailed, from Elio's testosterone-fueled fantasies to the pair's passionate couplings to such vivid descriptions of the Italian countryside one can almost smell the ocean and feel the heat. The account of the lovers' madcap night in Rome puts the reader not just in a particular time and place, but totally in the mindset of a young man getting his first real thrill of adult freedom.

I kept wondering where the parents were in all this. Could they be so clueless? Then Aciman gives us one beautifully nuanced scene after Oliver leaves to go back to America. As Elio and his father reminisce, his father says, "You had a beautiful friendship. Maybe more than a friendship . . . if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don't snuff it out . . . Right now there is sorrow. I don't envy the pain. But I envy you the pain."

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