Enigma Variations

André Aciman

A novel that takes its name from an Edward Elgar orchestral piece, the variations here are different romances from fragmented eras of the narrator Paul’s life. Though the novel progresses linearly, each chapter really exists as its own story with only passing references to the others. Characters mentioned in passing in one story may come to the forefront in another before sliding to the background again later.

The opening chapter “First Love” feels much different from the rest, focused on Paul’s return to an Italian island where his family had a summer home in his youth, a house that later burned down. Though he is ostensibly there to finally see what remains of the property, he finds himself seeking out information on a cabinetmaker his parents hired to restore pieces of furniture, a man he developed his first true crush on. Perhaps it’s just the longer scope of time, covering both his adolescent feelings and those upon his return as an adult, but this story feels the most complete of them all. Moving on, we next find Paul in “Spring Fever” convinced the woman he’s seeing is cheating on him, these thoughts tormenting him over the course of a dinner party. Next, some years later, he is ogling a man at his tennis club in “Manfred”; though this story is the most one-note of the bunch, Aciman captures intense desire like few people can, so it’s a perfectly fine note to hold. Then there is “Star Love,” a story of Paul’s dalliances with a woman that come like clockwork every four years. And lastly in “Abingdon Square,” we find him middle-aged, becoming obsessed with a younger woman, largely through their email correspondence.

It would trivialize this book to say it’s merely about Paul’s crushes, but it may be about his strongest periods of infatuation, which many times tend to be the moments outside of established relationships. It also calls back to the philosophy of the narrator in Aciman’s first novel Call Me By Your Name, who said, “we are not written for one instrument” — both in reference to the fluidity of Paul’s sexuality and as a challenge to the still-widely-held expectation that people only have room for one great love in their lives.

We make assumptions about how our lives are being charted without knowing that we are making these assumptions — which is the beauty of assumptions: they anchor us without the slightest clue that what we’re doing is trusting that nothing changes. We believe that the street we live on will remain the same and bear its name forever. We believe that our friends will stay our friends, and that those we love we’ll love forever. We trust and, by dint, of trusting, forget we trusted.

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