Giovanni, Maud, Manfred, Chloe and Heidi. There are the people whom Paul has loved or lusted after throughout the course of his adult life and each one has left an indelible mark on his character and on his soul. Aciman is a master at capturing the different stages of a love affair by devoting a chapter to each of Paul’s partners who all contribute varying degrees of love, lust, passion and commitment to the story of his life.
The first two chapters of the book are the most compelling and showcase Aciman’s ability to describe and capture emotions that are oftentimes too private to share. Paul, the narrator, arrives on a small Italian that was his family’s summer home and reflects back on the last season his family spent there when he was an adolescent. Paul remembers that as a twelve-year-old boy he experienced his first sexual awakening and because his was physically drawn to another man he is confused and ashamed. Paul’s mother wanted to have an old desk, a family heirloom restored, so she invited the local cabinetmaker over to their home to examine the desk. Giovanni, an attractive, strong man with attractive hands and a mellifluous voice immediately drew young, adolescent Paul’s attention:
That morning in our house, because he stood so very close to me, something undefined in his face left me as shaken and flustered as when I was asked once to recite a poem in front of the entire school, teachers, parents, distant relatives, friends of the family, visiting dignitaries, the world. I couldn’t even look at him. I needed to look away. His eyes were too clear. I didn’t know whether I wanted to touch them or swim in them.
Aciman is a master at describing the innocent and naïve feelings that come with a first crush. Paul begins showing up at Giovanni’s shop and helps him refurbish his parents’ desk. The desk has a secret compartment that was not discovered by anyone in the family until Giovanni inspects it. The hidden box within the desk that remains unknown to the family is a fitting image and parallel for the secret feelings that Paul has for the young and handsome cabinetmaker. As Paul is visiting the island for the first time in ten years, all of his memories and desires for Giovanni come flooding back to him. Paul is also there to inspect his family’s home which was burned down by the locals for some mysterious reason. Aciman provides a compelling plot as the mystery of solving this crime is slowly unraveled throughout the first chapter.
The second chapter is devoted to Manfred, a man Paul meets at the Central Park tennis court in New York. Paul is now in his late-twenties, has some sort of a career in writing and publishing and is living in New York City with a woman named Maud. Aciman builds a complex character through Paul to make the point that love, passion and sexuality are never easy or well-defined. Paul is equally attracted to and sexually stimulated by men and women. Even though he lives with Maud and has a great physical and emotional relationship with her, he cannot stop thinking about Manfred whom he sees every morning at the tennis court. It takes Paul two years to work up the courage to speak to Manfred. When Manfred pays him the slightest attention with a look, a nod or a remark, Paul is elated. Once again, Aciman is so adept at capturing the various stages of a person who has a romantic crush on someone and can only love from afar. Paul has a private, inner dialogue with his longed for Manfred:
Every morning I watch you walk to your court, I watch you play, and I watch you leave an hour and a half later. Always the same, never brooding, just silent. Occasionally, you’ll say “Excuse me” when I happen to stand in your way, and “Thank you’ when your ball drifts into my court and I hurl it back to you. With these few words, I find comfort in false hope and hope in false starts. I’ll coddle anything instead of nothing. Even thinking that nothing can come of nothing gives me a leg to stand on, something to consider when I wake up in the middle of the night and can see nothing, not the blackout in my life, not the screen, not the cellar, not even hope and false comforts—just the joy of your imagined limb touching mine. I prefer the illusion of perpetual fasting to the certainty of famine. I have, I think, what’s called a broken heart.
Anyone who has ever loved someone from afar can identify with the pain and torture of Paul’s words. Finally after two years of this hidden, inner torment, Paul and Manfred go out for a drink and lay all of their feelings out for one another. We are led to believe that Paul has finally found the right person for him, that a man like Manfred can satisfy him in a way that could never be by a woman. But, this is only the half-way point of Paul’s story and it is far from over.
The last three chapters all deal with women that Paul is further drawn to. Chloe, who Paul has known since college, has an especially profound effect on his emotions. They keep running into each other at social gatherings about every four years and every time these accidental meetings take place their sexual passion is intense. But they can never commit to one another so their relationship is nothing but a series of false beginnings that never go anywhere. In the last three chapters, Paul’s self-doubts and emotional confusion don’t fade away with time or age. Whenever he finds himself in a committed relationship, he is always looking for or thinking about someone else. I found his story at this point a bit tedious because even in middle age he has not found what can make him happy.
Always looking, always doubting, never happy, Paul becomes a depressing, cliche of a dissatisfied middle-aged man. Perhaps this is meant to reflect Paul’s continuing struggle with his sexuality; Aciman’s language and plot in the first part of the story is much more interesting than the ending of the novel. But overall, it is still worth the read. This book has many of the same themes and subjects he explores in his previous novel, Call Me By Your Name. This story also reminded me of Bae Suah’s exploration of the complexities of human sexuality in her novel A Greater Music.
About the Author:
Aciman is the author of the Whiting Award-winning memoir Out of Egypt (1995), an account of his childhood as a Jew growing up in post-colonial Egypt. Aciman has published three other books: False Papers: Essays in Exile and Memory (2001), a novel Call Me By Your Name (2007), which was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won the Lambda Literary Award for Men’s Fiction (2008) and Eight White Nights (2010).