If 2019 is remembered for anything, it may be as the year of the unnecessary sequel. In the wake of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments and the second season of HBO’s Big Little Lies — two stories that are as well constructed and enjoyable as they are wholly superfluous — I have to admit that I met the announcement of a sequel to the novel Call Me By Your Name with a fair amount of cynicism, if not downright exhaustion. This reaction is unfair to both the author and the work itself: whether a sequel is borne from a long period of authorial gestation, or is quickly slapped together after its predecessor’s big screen success, I can’t bring myself to fault an author for capitalizing on a newfound audience. But if the work is “indispensable” to said audience is an entirely different matter.
It is difficult to resist the temptation of a sequel. With popular writing, and especially with popular love stories, there is always a longing for closure. When the characters are as beloved as Call Me By Your Name’s Elio and Oliver, the desire for closure becomes all the more desperate. Set twenty years after the first installment, André Aciman’s Find Me proves itself to be well aware of this. The first part of the novel, titled “Tempo,” concerns itself not with the relationship between Elio and Oliver, but with Samuel, Elio’s father. After he falls in love on a train to Rome with a woman named Miranda, Aciman all but winks at readers: “I hate that word: closure,” Miranda says. Her father replies that this may be because she “leaves doors open everywhere.”
Aciman may not be in the business of leaving doors open, but he certainly takes time to close them. He skillfully delays gratification in this novel. First, he introduces eager readers to several different romances. Then, he forks over what they want: the reunion between Elio and Oliver. Aciman’s agenda is more than simply to provide closure. Find Me is a digressive and complicated novel that delights in the most intimate details of romance. Inevitably, some readers will view certain characters and entire sections as disposable. I’ll admit that upon immediate reflection, I questioned the point of the central romance in Part Two. Why spend nearly one hundred pages on a relationship, only to abandon it entirely? In a book where the characters are so delicately drawn, it struck me as a waste. Here I was, like most readers, begging for the closure Aciman is so intent on resisting. But Aciman, in a defiant move, treats love stories exactly as they are: passionate and intimate and full-hearted — even if they are not permanent — even if they do not fit into the service of a larger narrative.
It will become evident to readers that Elio and Oliver have matured since Call Me By Your Name. Aciman’s writing has undergone the same maturation. Find Me, digressive as it may be, is a structural marvel. This novel is a slow-burn, and its steady pace crescendos toward a moving fifty or so pages at the end. With that said, it takes a while for the novel to pick up steam. Part One includes some unbelievably cloying moments, such as when at a café, Miranda explains why she could tell that Samuel would not know what an Americano is: “’I know you, Sami, that’s why,” she says in spite of the fact she has known him hardly a day. “I look at you now, and it’s as if I’ve known you forever.” It is one of several times in Part One that Acmian’s writing finds itself both saccharine and slightly too clever. Less sentimental readers will have no other choice but to wince.
By the second part of the novel, we are spared the flirtatious verbal sparring and assertions of love that propel forward Miranda and Samuel’s relationship. The prose grows denser, and these missteps lessen. Aciman decorates the remainder of the novel with remarkable flourishes of prose, and none are more impressive than a sex scene between Elio and his lover, Michel.
“I’d lost my soul for so long,” Elio narrates, “and was now finding I’d owned it all along but didn’t know where to look for it or how to find it without him — Lost my soul, lost my soul, I wanted to say, and then heard myself mutter the words, Lost my soul, all these years. ‘Don’t,’ he said, as though fearing I was on the point of tears. ‘Just say I’m not hurting you,’ he said. I nodded. ‘No, say ‘you’re not hurting me’ say it because you mean it. ‘You’re not hurting me,’ I said.”
The passage continues in the same lilting style, and while I found it beyond pleasing on aesthetic grounds, it was curious to me that the sex acts themselves are left opaque. Each man’s physicality is glossed over in direct contrast to the way sex is written between Samuel and Miranda. Earlier in the novel, each act and body part is explicitly drawn out, with no part of the scene used as a metaphor (like it is in the above passage). While the novel may be beautifully written, it was disappointing to see this juxtaposition between the way straight and gay intimacy is portrayed, especially from an author who in the past has been anything but prudish in his portrayal of male-to-male sensuality. Taken on its own, there would be nothing explicitly wrong with this portrayal of intimacy, but it is notable that gay sex in Find Me is more reminiscent of what we see in the film version of Call Me By Your Name than it is the novel. One can only hope that Aciman is not pivoting away from his past efforts in an attempt to appeal to his newfound, broader audience.
Then again, maybe I am just caught in Aciman’s snare. Maybe I am once again seeking gratification when the aesthetic project at hand is to resist our desires, and with time, reward our patience. Find Me is not without its flaws, but through its willingness to delay and elude closure altogether, it proves itself indispensable to longtime readers and newcomers alike — something too many sequels fail to do.
By André Aciman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published Oct. 29, 2019