I know this is going to sound like a cop-out, but it has taken me so long to write this review because I was allowing myself some time to think about how I wanted to talk about this book. This novel blew me away. Everything about it made me feel something. Aciman’s prose is stunning. His words flow so effortlessly throughout the book, which makes it both easy to read and something you want to savor. It reads kind of like a series of short stories, but all from one man’s perspective.
Each story focuses on Paul and the people whom he has loved or lusted after throughout the course of his life. The first chapter introduces us to Giovanni, Paul’s first love. Paul arrives on a small Italian island that was the home to his family during his childhood summers. He reminisces about his first sexual awakening as a twelve year old and the shame and confusion he felt because he was physically drawn to another man.
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 and is in a cohabitating relationship with a woman named Maud, but he cannot stop thinking about Manfred. Finally, after two years of his hidden feelings, Paul and Manfred go out for a drink and confess their feeling for one another.
“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.” -Enigma Variations, Andre Aciman
The last three chapters we learn that there are even more people that Paul finds himself drawn to. Chloe, who Paul has known since college, has a 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 attraction is intense. However, they both have trouble committing to one another, which leaves their relationship with nothing but a series of false beginnings that never blossoms into more.
“We loved with every organ but the heart.” -Enigma Variations, Andre Aciman
Oh my holy Jesus…Aciman is a master at capturing the different phases of love! He pulls at the heart of human connection, what sparks a relationship, endures them, and makes them challenging. Enigma Variations is a very intimate reflection on love through the eyes of a man who loves so whole-heartedly. I was completely enraptured by his writing and even more compelled by his story telling. His passages can only be described as musical, and remarkably calm despite the fact that they are dealing with some of the most difficult and uncomfortable questions about love. As you read Aciman’s prose, you’ll soon discover your breathing beginning to slow and you begin to grow unaware of the sounds around you. Whether it an awkward dinner party with old friends, a New York tennis court, or the place you grew up, he makes it incredibly easy to picture yourself in these settings. Aciman is tremendously successful at creating an accurate atmosphere and, more impressively, at sustaining it.
I recommend this book 100% to anyone who is willing to listen to me rant about how great it is. I know it’s a bold statement, but I think this just might be my new favorite book.
You can learn more about Andre’ Aciman and take a look at his works at https://www.amazon.com/Andre-Aciman/e/B000AQ43NO.