vulture book club

Call Me by Your Name Book Club Part 3: Can You Ever Say Good-bye?

No, you’re crying.

It had to end: We’ve reached the fourth and final part of Call Me by Your Name, “Ghost Spots.” Oliver has left Italy for America, and Elio has gone back home. Their romance, as they knew it, is over, but Elio spends the next few days, then years, and finally decades, revisiting that summer romance. And just as Call Me by Your Name has come to a close, so too, has this iteration of of our book club. We thank you for going on this journey with us, and we hope that you’ll look back and think of us someday.

Alex: This final section is so devastating to read. It’s like a sadder, more realistic version of Before Sunset when Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy meet each other again a decade after their whirlwind night together. Instead of getting back together like they do, Elio and Oliver simply wonder if the other still remembers, if he left as big an imprint on his life as the other did on his. I think we all have Sliding Doors moments in our lives when we wonder, What would have happened if …? It’s impossible to know how Elio’s life would have gone without Oliver, but we know that by being with Oliver, knowing Oliver, and loving Oliver, his life was irrevocably changed.

In the years that follow their romance, Elio says that he met many people “who either eclipsed [Oliver] or reduced him to an early signpost.” But I don’t believe him. We’ve already established that Elio is an unreliable narrator — someone who likes to tell himself stories to dull the pain. Because 15 years later, Elio drops by the university where Oliver works and they get a drink. Elio still wants to know if seeing Oliver would stir something within him again. Of course it does, because Oliver is Oliver:

…It would finally dawn on us both that he was more me than I had ever been myself, because when he became me and I became him in bed so many years ago, he was and would forever remain, long after every forked road in life had done its work, my brother, my friend, my father, my son, my husband, my lover, myself.

That passage encapsulates so much of the bond between them that we’ve talked about before. Aciman has said that once he had figured out the outline of the story, he wrote his first draft in about four months. Something about that makes sense to me, because it’s fast like a drug hitting your veins. The swiftness of the prose, the first-person narration, and the extremity of the emotions all feel like what it’s like when you’re swept away by your first love.

Hunter: Wow, you really want to just jump right into then, Alex. “My brother, my friend, my father, my son, my husband, my lover, myself” — that’s the whole novel distilled into one line.

There’s such a sense of displacement in this chapter. Their love story was so rooted in their youth, in summer, in Italy. The fact that they meet again in New England — the total opposite of an Italian romance — is a harbinger of this finale where they don’t end up together. Elio doesn’t visit to rekindle his love with Oliver so much as he’s come to remember it, to make sure that everything that they had was a real as it felt that night. And it always was, even when Elio tried to bluff his way through those intervening years, (rudely!) saying Oliver was just a regular fork in the road. But isn’t that what we do when we’re grasping at an impossibility — try to discount and smother it, instead of feeling that loss?

Which is exactly what Oliver’s father advises him against in a beautiful moment toward the end of the book. (Elio takes this advice, mostly.) Feeling anything — even that loss and that homesickness for Oliver and their love — is a gift. We can talk more about what an absolute gem Dr. Perlman is in his great monologue, but what I love (and really relate to) is that Elio’s initial reaction to his father’s acknowledgement of their relationship is that he’s dumbstruck to have been found out. He thought he was being very adult and private about this very intense desire, but his parents saw right through him! And not only that, but he starts to consider that maybe his father has a whole inner life he knows nothing about. That’s so teenage.

Alex: We are young Hunter! (Well, I sort of am.) And if this book has taught us anything, it’s to seize the moment and not waste our lives as half-finished versions of ourselves. Am I being dramatic? Maybe, but let’s live life dramatically. After all, as Elio’s father says in that splendid and sagacious speech: “But remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. Most of us can’t help but live as though we’ve got two lives to live, one is the mock-up, the other the finished version, and then there are all those versions in between.” If anything, reading this book makes me want to be more daring than I am.

And this is where I think about Oliver. Oliver tells Elio that had his parents known about them, he would have been institutionalized. In many ways, the threat of homophobia exists more palpably in the shadows for Oliver to me. Maybe it’s because he lives in the American context, but I can imagine the pressure he must have felt to get married to a woman and have children, and to compartmentalize Elio. His time in Italy then must have felt like an impossible fantasy. What must it have been like to have known paradise only to leave it? It must be like exile.

Their relationship is like amber crystallizing a moment in time so that it can exist whole and safe from the outside world. It is, in some sense, unreal, because it’s untested by the exigencies of daily life. I wonder then, how you interpret the end of the book, where they meet again 20 years later. To me, there is a slight note of ambiguity, a feeling that even after all of these years, anything is possible.

Hunter: I go back and forth about the ending. Sometimes I think it’s devastating — the audacity of Oliver to get married and start this whole other family! — and sometimes I find it hopeful. “I remember good things only,” Elio tells Oliver, when Oliver asks if he’s been forgiven for choosing his traditional lifestyle. It makes me think of Elio’s bravery in the first chapter: He did the hardest thing in the world! Is it better to speak or to die? He chose to speak, and Oliver did not, and now he’s living Elio’s Sliding Door life, that mock-up. Even though he seems single after the time jump, he’s grown into himself. He’s cutting right through the abstraction: “You are the only person I’d like to say goodbye to when I die, because only then will this thing I call my life make any sense. And if I should hear that you died, my life as I now it, the me who is speaking with you now, will cease to exist.”

You bring up paradise, Alex, and how Oliver must miss it. But I think everyone Aciman introduces us to in the book is feeling nostalgia for it. Elio, his parents, Marzia, too — summer is paradise, Italy is paradise, the pool is heaven. That’s what makes me sad. Paradise never lasts, but you can dip back into it, or at least visit its ghost spots. Does the ending make you sad? I cry when I read it because Aciman’s prose is so beautiful, but don’t they get some version of what they want, the warmth of those memories?

Alex: They do, and I think you’re right that this book, Elio and Oliver, Billowy, Rome, their relationship, everything, could only exist within the prism of memory. It could be so perfect, so sun-dappled and delicious, because memory is able to fill in holes and smooth over inconsistencies. I thought it was funny how Elio had forgotten that he got so wasted that last night in Rome and tried to bring a girl back home with them. What a perfectly imperfect memory you have, Elio.

But it does make me sad because I do think they had a Great Love — one that Elio still thought about a full two decades later. Instead, they both went into a coma — or a “parallel life” on better days — and Elio says he went on to have other Great Loves. But still, he thinks about Oliver, Oliver, Oliver. Oliver is the one who haunts his home in Italy and the alleyway in Rome. Oliver is the one Elio wants to say good-bye to before his death, and the one he wants to call him by his name. I so wish that they could have lived in a world where they could have lived a life together, but maybe that is the price of perfection: that you can’t have more than a moment in the sun.

Call Me by Your Name Book Club: Can You Ever Say Good-bye?