In Richard Linklater’s film Before Sunrise, two strangers meet on a train, strike up a conversation and soon find themselves wandering around Vienna, intoxicated by each other’s presence and recognising that from a chance encounter a great romance might have begun. Find Me is a sequel to Call Me By Your Name, André Aciman’s 2007 novel that became an Oscar-winning film, and it begins in the same way as Linklater’s movie, but rather than the protagonists being a couple of twentysomethings, Samuel and Miranda have a greater disparity between their ages. The former, the father of the young pianist Elio from the earlier novel, is at least 30 years older than the latter.
It’s a brave conceit in 2019, when any suggestion of impropriety between an older man and a younger woman is generally given short shrift, but there’s no touching or hand-holding here, no lewd comments or sexual innuendo. Instead, the pair engage in a long and erudite conversation that leads them to spending the day together and waiting no more than a few hours to agree that theirs is the greatest love affair since Orpheus first set eyes on Eurydice.
Having read much of Aciman’s work, I find his writing intriguing and maddening in equal parts. While the elegance of his prose and the sophistication of his characters are to be admired, his creations rarely seem human, speaking in a pompous fashion where everyone, regardless of age or circumstance, is intimately familiar with classical music and philosophy. Love lies at the heart of his books, but as a concept rather than a reality. No one in an Aciman novel can ever just go on a few dates and see how things work out. Instead they know from their first interaction that they’re destined to be together, revelling in the authenticity of their affections. Ultimately, it does not make them seem evolved but narcissistic, shallow and a little immature.
The same problems weakened his previous novel, Enigma Variations, where the central character Paul fell in love with five different people across the story, declaring each one to be the great love of his life before chucking them in favour of the next. Here, Samuel and Miranda are planning their future together before the guard has even checked their tickets. In fact, within hours of meeting, the pair discuss having children, buy monogrammed mugs, consider getting matching tattoos and she introduces him to her father. I’m as romantic as the next guy but there’s a fine line between passion and recklessness. “Is this going too fast for you?” Miranda asks him, and it’s a fair question. It’s going too fast for me and I’m not even in the relationship.
Find Me is structured in three sections, each one shorter than the last. The second concerns the burgeoning relationship between Elio and a much older man, Michel, whom he meets at a concert. The conversations and the romance play out in much the same way as they do between Samuel and Miranda, with a neat line about the ageing lotharios eventually having to compete over who is the younger. Elio and Michel speak for the first time during the concert’s intermission and by the time the musicians have gathered for the second act, they too are besotted, expressing sentiments of love that might sound excessive on a wedding day. Novels don’t have to reflect real life, they can elevate the quotidian into something heightened and beautiful, but if the reader wants to shout, “Oh grow up, you’ve only just met!” at the characters, then something’s gone awry.
The final and shortest section features Oliver, the previous great love of Elio’s life, who is now deeply in love with several other people but dreaming that the young pianist’s hands are still tickling his ivories. Fans of Call Me By Your Name will have to wait patiently until the coda of Find Me to see the lovers actually meet.
It’s annoying to feel such frustration with a writer who is as gifted a stylist as Aciman, and whose work is centred around that most basic of human needs, love. Characters in a novel should never feel like characters in a novel and too often here, they do. This is a shame considering his preoccupations are relatable and his descriptions of Rome and life on the continent are beautifully drawn, as evocative as anything you might find in EM Forster. But honestly, if one of these characters ended up in a train carriage with me and tried to start a conversation, I’d grab my things and go in search of an empty seat.
• Find Me is published by Faber (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.
• This article was amended on 30 October 2019. In the proof edition on which this review was based, Elio and Oliver never meet. André Aciman has since added a coda to the book in which the characters are reunited. We have updated the review to reflect this.