Whilst reading Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name (2007), I was not only transported to coastal Italy by way of its beautiful language, but I was also immediately struck by its similarity to two other books that I had read recently. I’m going to frame this comparison immediately by saying that the similarity is not a negative thing. I’m purely thinking in terms of this dual review which was obvious to me to be next on the blog. The similarities are in terms of the content that it examines, the wonderful language which almost takes precedent over the plot development as well as the inevitable endings to which these books are drawing.
The first book that I found similar to Call Me By Your Name is one that isn’t featured in this dual review but I can’t help but mention. This book moved me to tears whilst reading it – in public! This book is Holding the Man (1995) by Timothy Conigrave. This powerful memoir tells of Conigrave’s moving and tragic love affair with John Caleo, and the challenges of circumstance that they confronted. These challenges were not confronted so much in Call Me By Your Name, primarily perhaps due to two main reasons: the fact that the book is fictional, and that it was written close to twenty years later. This is not to demean the challenges faced by LGBTQ people, and indeed characters, in the twenty-first century. But it was not a focus for Andre Aciman nor was it a focus for the characters in his book.
The fact that Holding the Man is a memoir and not a work of fiction is the reason why I have excluded it from this comparative review. It was a hard decision not to write an extended review of this wonderful book, but it bears mentioning when writing about the two books in this piece. I strongly encourage anyone to pick up this book.
Now, moving right along to the second book which I am going to cover – Sarah Winman’s small yet powerful 2017 novel Tin Man. This book tells of two childhood friends, Ellis and Michael, who each suffer from familial difficulties and violence. Both children are sensitive and poetic, and as such, their friendship develops into something more – for the briefest of times. A fleeting moment of beauty is lost in time as the novel skips forward in time, seeing Ellis married to Annie and with Michael nowhere in sight – but not out of mind.
Not only do these two books share a romance between two tender and artistic young men, but also, notably, the background to this romance. Both Winman and Aciman’s books are set against the stunning backdrop of coastal Europe, the rich evocative portrait of English countryside, the beaches of Italy and the South of France are hard to forget. The fact that the characters are artists themselves are reflected in these stunning backdrops, and also their historic pasts (French and Italian Renaissance art and I can barely even dip a toe into their collective literary pasts). In the case of Aciman’s book, the passionate romance between Elio and Oliver builds upon their relationship with literature itself – Elio’s inherent and deep knowledge of both music and literature being brought up in his professor father’s home and Oliver’s own writing. A particularly poignant moment in the book is when the pair visit a local bookstore and Elio purchases a book for Oliver that will serve as a recurring metaphor of their time together.
Both of these books are examples of high literary fiction – an ambiguous term to say the least; however in the case of these two books, it is the use of beautiful descriptive language against stunning backdrops. However, what sets these books apart as unique and interesting to compare is the fact that this language arguably takes precedent over the events of the plot. This is not particular to either of the two books – I certainly found that the language was what kept me reading rather than, for example, the fates of the characters. This makes the selection of Call Me By Your Name for a film adaptation a curious choice – it’s hard to convey language in film, though not impossible. In the face of the multi-award winning adaptation from director Luca Guadagnio (2017), it’s fair to say that it was a successful one. I haven’t seen the movie (though I’m fascinated by it!) so I’d welcome any comparisons between the film and book from anyone reading.
In both cases, the writing is lyrical and poetic, charging the plot forward to its most memorable scenes. However, this is also all building to the books’ inevitable conclusions. These endings are no secret in either case – in the case of Call Me By Your Name the narration alludes to how the book will end, and Tin Man jumps around in time so that we know how the relationship between Michael, Ellis and Annie will conclude. That is not to say that the endings do not pack a powerful punch. They are both inherently true to life and the nature of first love in the majority of cases – life moves quickly and we are loath to say our goodbyes to people along the way. It is unfortunate yet inevitable. However, when we meet these people again down the track we find that time has changed many things – but also, nothing at all.
I would definitely recommend reading both of these stunning books – though they are both relatively small books, they pack a heavy emotional punch as well as making their own literary marks. They are powerful examinations into the lives of memorable characters against stunning backdrops. They are made even more powerful in comparison, but are equally strong as standalone reads.