The project is one of recognition and revelation within the reader: the book wants nothing less than the dissolution of your consciousness into its pixellated moments of psychological precision ... the third section, 'Manfred,' grows a little tedious. Unlike Aciman’s steamy first novel Call Me by Your Name, most of the skin-to-skin contact in Enigma Variations occurs in the narrator’s head, and in 'Manfred,' Paul wallows longwindedly in the agony of delayed avowal ... Intriguingly, as we witness Paul repeatedly rearrange his life around a new magnetic north, it becomes clear that his bisexuality abets his serial monogamy ... Aciman has captured Paul’s bridge life delightfully well.
Enigma Variations isn’t a conventionally linear novel. Though it first appears to contain all the delights of that form — the immersiveness, the shocks of plot — it has too many gaps and intentional omissions. Instead, this book wants to be music in words, giving the reader a cellular sense of how it feels to move through time ... Aciman writes arousal so beautifully you miss it when it’s gone ... Near the end the book’s harmonic intention comes to full flower. Giovanni rings through Maud, Maud through Manfred. It’s not that they’re variations on the same character; they don’t inhabit the same emotional position ... Perhaps the book’s greatest wonder is to suggest we can be wildly different people over the span of a life depending on what we lack ... He writes with the ferocity of a writer who’s finally getting his vision down, and he has to say it, has to get it out. He’s made a magnificent, living thing.
...a sublime series of portraits of one man’s sexual history ... Aciman writes tremendous lust scenes — moments where the erotic power of a man or a woman is so strong it reshapes its well-educated but heedless hero ... The fractured structure of Enigma Variations is key to the novel’s strength — the book is built on variations on a theme, not a familiar arc of love-gone-wrong or happily-ever-after. This leads to some contrivances, like the section about the woman Paul tumbles into bed with once every four years. But the push-me-pull-you relationship is also a surprisingly tender way to explore the idea of 'relief [and] its terrible partner, indifference, which is the impulse to let go before we’ve even begun reaching for what we crave' ... There’s something here for everyone, along with the appealing notion that everybody can be encompassed by this book’s particular someone.
This touch of archaism, even fogeyishness, is refreshing. It is unusual for contemporary books about sexual relationships to be so devoid of millennial cynicism. There is almost no political backdrop and almost no overt social critique. And even if the characters are battle-weary, their jadedness is only ever temporary. The pursuit of love (and slaking of lust) trumps all considerations. The chase, with Mr. Aciman, is always thrilling ... Enigma Variations is Mr. Aciman’s fourth novel and his most sophisticated treatment of bisexuality ... The different strands of his protagonist’s character and experience gradually build into a portrait of a credible, mutable, sincere and reliably inscrutable human being ... Perhaps the most affecting tale is 'Star Love,' a brilliantly restless narrative that ranges from Paul’s university days to an era after Manfred has gone. It portrays the slings and arrows of a hopeless and persisting love affair ... This is an enormously intelligent and captivating novel, filled with surprising twists and psychological acuity. Its success, however, also contains some seeds of failure. As in his previous novels, most notably Eight White Nights Mr. Aciman refuses to say much about the privileged arena his characters inhabit...With a little more tethering to the world that nourishes Paul’s angst, Enigma Variations could have been even more satisfying.
Is there any writer out there who can conjure the seismic swings and loop-the-loop giddiness of sexual infatuation the way that André Aciman can? ... Each chapter comes with a closing twist, and the very last sentence in the book unveils a cunning plot turn that alters the whole perspective of the novel. Aciman is a heady, maximalist writer, and occasionally his writing can be over-the-top. More often, his fanciful turns of phrase are on the mark ... The allure of Enigma Variations rests in its agile sense of the heart’s paradoxes and might-have-beens.
Aciman’s description of that love is devastatingly, excruciatingly real. He exquisitely puts into language what we know of first love, whether we experience it early in life or later ... André Aciman writes authoritatively about love, the title and theme of his most recent work that appropriately includes 'variations' in its title, which love inevitably, and almost by definition, encompasses. While each of Elgar’s 'variations on a theme' is based on an acquaintance, and includes musical references to a particular quirk (such as a stammer), and each variation is labeled with the initials of the friend, Aciman’s variations on the theme of love are all one person’s, no initials necessary. And while Elgar labeled his variations an enigma, perhaps because the theme of the variations is the enigma itself, Aciman’s only point to the paradoxes that exist in both our definition(s) of love, and, of course, in love itself.
Aciman gives the island a hallucinatory, paradisiacal beauty, a beauty as clear and blurred as memory ... In this first variation in particular, Aciman withholds and reveals information with an illusionist’s skill. He creates a tender, wistful momentum in a story that is very much about a summer that stood still ... Aciman’s details of a modern-day affair are uncanny, funny, perfect ... Aciman writes about distance, the distance we stand from the past, from lands we no longer live in, and the distance between lovers. Even the details he meticulously observes are a confirmation of distance, for they never quite signal the truth, keeping us apart from truth ... It is a desolate book in many ways, the rich landscape and bright sun of southern Italy and the possibilities of youth winding up on a dark city street dulled by disappointment. It is also an accomplished and nuanced exploration of how we are exiled from each other and from ourselves.
The Enigma Variations’ storyline is more blurred [than Call Me By Your Name's] ... As ever, Aciman’s evocation of weather, emotional subtlety and time passing is wonderful. The narrative moves seamlessly into earlier years: the past is the present, the present the past. This Proustian meander captures truths about the contradictory drives of romantic love, but the pace can be excruciatingly slow, and the lack of any real knowledge of who or what Paul is creates a constant sensation of something missing ... The absence of a conventional sense of story or structure reflects the musical form that Aciman is invoking, making this a clever experiment but also a frustrating one. For all its author’s indisputable talents, Enigma Variations creates, deliberately or otherwise, a sense of unfinished business.