Enigma Variations

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Two years ago, I read Call Me By Your Name, and this year I read the sequel Find Me. Both these books were very enticing and sensual books (I’ve been meaning to write my reviews– maybe later).

However, it was Andre Aciman’s Enigma Variations that really allowed me to fall into his world of human beings seeking love. This book is essentially the story of Paul, whose life we cover from a child to his adult stage, and how at each stage he experiences the theme of love, lust, desire, infatuation, attraction, and love. The concept of love is shrouded in an enigma because nothing is clear and straightforward. One doesn’t just fall in love, but rather experiences various emotions in the process. The stories aren’t really about Paul and the people he meets, but more so about the concept of desire/ lust/ love.

The book is split into five parts, which can also be seen as five stages our man Paul goes through different variations of love. Paul is a flawed character, yet he is portrayed as sensitively and eloquently by the author.

A. First Love

Here we have Paul as a child, who has lots of daddy issues (he need emotional validation from his father which is absent). Set on an Italian island, he visits with his mother to a local carpenter, Nanni, who immediately grabs Paul’s attention. Paul thus begins to explore his feelings: desire, lust, and perhaps love. He badly wants the love of this elder man he meets on a regular basis. Whether he finds that love or not, I’ll leave it up to you to read to find out.

B. Spring Fever

Aciman displays his impeccable writing skills in this chapter, as he infuses the spring weather into the new feelings Paul has. We have shifted to New York, where Paul is now living with a woman called Maud. Paul develops feelings of jealousy when he sees Maud with his competition. Here, Aciman masterfully takes us into the mind of Paul as he struggles to deal with these new feelings. Most of the action takes place at a dinner party, where we meet Manfred, a tennis player, who Paul begins to admire secretly. (Very clever of Aciman to do this!)

C. Manfred

Paul develops feelings for Manfred and they regularly meet for tennis. Paul wanders through his feelings of lust, desire and perhaps love. There is a lot going on in Paul’s mind as he begins to fantasize about a life with Manfred. While they do eventually have sex, it begins to feel as if there is still something else Paul longs for. Manfred becomes unrequited love for Paul, and so they part ways.

D. Star Love

This chapter becomes interesting as Paul is now another woman, Chloe. Paul’s internalized message from his father that there is only one true real love somewhat takes a shift now. Now Paul is looking for love, not sex. He longs for that person who will embrace him, love him, and fulfill all his desires. Somehow, they don’t get along and part ways. Four years later, Paul bumps into Chloe; Chloe is married to her husband and Paul is with Manfred. But the thing that goes on in Paul’s head when he sees Chloe is: Is this love?

E. Abingdon Square

This time, Paul has fallen for a younger woman. Manfred is back in Germany and Chloe is in a loveless marriage. He is old enough to be the father of this young woman, yet he experiences everything as if he were still a teenager. He writes to Manfred, who advises him to seek out that opening and approach the woman. Paul, in his middle age, goes through the same experiences of love and desire. The ending for Paul is sad yet a surprising one.

My Experience

A lot of people will say that this book is reminiscent of Call Me By Your Name (which was a huge bestseller for Aciman, and a huge movie success). The first story is very similar to the story of Elio and Oliver in CMBYN, right down to the Italian setting. However, don’t let that put you off, because Aciman very wisely doesn’t talk about Paul’s own sexuality, which makes for an interesting read.

The stories get shorter and shorter as you progress, and somehow begin to feel less impactful. The first story was the best, the second one was all right, the third one was very good and by the time you come out the third one, the fourth and fifth ones merely become slightly disappointing.

That doesn’t take away the power Aciman has with his words describing the pain and joy of experiencing love and all other emotions with it. The author writes beautifully well, incorporating lyrical literature, music, and poetry into his narratives. If i were to put a classical opera into a book, this would be it. While the theme is of love, we experience so many other myriad emotions that come with love- pain, joy, excitement, longing, and fulfillment.

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