Monday, January 16, 2017

Book Review: "Enigma Variations" by André Aciman

André Aciman's debut novel, Call Me by Your Name, utterly blew me away. I remember reading and re-reading paragraphs, mesmerized by his poetic language, and at times dissolving into tears from the emotional power of the story. While I could never seem to get into his second novel, and didn't know he wrote a third, when I stumbled on his latest novel, Enigma Variations, I thought I'd give his writing one more try.

This book is staggeringly beautiful. Powerfully emotional, haunting, frank in its sexuality and its romanticism, this is a book about love, infatuation, longing, and lust. It's a book which explores the divide between wanting the familiar and wanting what you do not (or in some cases, cannot) have, and makes you realize that the things you think you cannot live without lose their appeal as soon as you get them. I felt this book in my heart and in my head, and I don't think I'll be able to forget it anytime soon, nor do I want to. I don't doubt this will be among the best books I read this year.

"Perhaps in this, finally, lay the leanest proof of love: the hope, the belief, the conviction that she knew more about me than I did myself, that she, not I, held the key to everything I felt. I didn't need to know anything; she'd be the one to know."

Enigma Variations consists of five novellas, each focusing on a man named Paul at a different time in his life. In "First Love," 22-year-old Paul returns to the Italian island where his family spent summers in his early adolescence. He remembers in particular one summer, when he was 12, and he became obsessed with the village's cabinetmaker, a ruggedly handsome man who seemed to show an interest in Pauly (as he was called back then), and awakened desires in the boy he was never aware of before. When Paul returns to the island he finds while certain things are as he remembered them, certain things are as far from memory as possible, yet he realizes things about that summer that young Pauly would never have understood. And that was the first time he realized the loss we can suffer when we don't say the things we most want to.

In "Spring Fever," Paul is dating a woman, Maud, whom he believes is cheating on him. While he is slightly dismayed by this fact, at the same time he feels freed by it. At a dinner party with friends, where he meets Maud's suspected lover, he discovers that perhaps she isn't the only one with secrets, and he is more of an open book than he thinks. "Manfred" follows Paul as he becomes obsessed with a younger man who plays tennis at the same club he does, and Paul longs for Manfred to recognize him, to see him as a man and not just a person, to desire Paul with the same fervor Paul feels for him.

In "Star Love," Paul is reunited with a college girlfriend, Chloe, with whom he had a fitful yet intense relationship. They seem to meet up every four years in a similar setting, and yet each time they leave one another indelibly changed, yet immobilized from expressing their true feelings, even when both are with other people. And in "Abingdon Square," an older Paul meets a younger writer and starts to wonder if she is his last chance at true happiness, yet he is afraid of rejection and putting his feelings out there.

"When I'm with you, I feel I can take what others call my life and turn its face away from the wall. My entire life faces the wall except when I'm with you. I stare at my life and want to undo every mistake, every deceit, turn a new leaf, turn the table, turn the clock. I want to put a real face on my life, not the drab front I've been wearing since forever."

Aciman's storytelling draws you in, holds you by the heart, and envelops you in the story. I found these novellas so powerful, so beautifully written, and they provoked so many emotions in me. I found the way Aciman and the other characters treated Paul's bisexuality very interesting—in a less-talented author's hands this could have been fodder for melodrama. This is a book about love and the intensity of that love; it is not a book that truly cares about the sex of the people Paul loves.

This is probably not a book for everyone, but it is so bold and poetic, so emotionally rich and exquisite, if it sounds like it might appeal to you, pick it up. Perhaps you'll identify with some of Paul's emotions, or perhaps you'll just understand the enduring power of loving and being loved.

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