Elio spends each summer with his academic parents in the small Italian village of B. Each year, the family hosts young American scholars who come to live in Italy while working on a book project. When Elio is seventeen, his family invites a twenty-four-year-old Columbia professor named Oliver to live with them for six weeks. Upon Oliver’s arrival, Elio is drawn to him but doesn’t quite understand why, taking special care to give him a nice tour of the town and paying close attention to the way he presents himself. He’s impressed by Oliver’s “billowy” shirt that opens onto his chest and the casual, confident way he moves through the world. At the same time, he also begins to resent Oliver’s relaxed attitude, which seems insulting. For instance, whenever Oliver leaves the house, he says “Later!”—a way of saying goodbye Elio has never heard and dislikes for its “indifference.”
Elio and Oliver make a habit of working together in the mornings by the pool. While Elio works on a musical score at the outdoor table, Oliver makes changes to his manuscript on a blanket in the grass. After lunch, he moves to the edge of the pool to read, saying, “This is heaven.” As such, he dubs this spot “heaven,” or the orle of paradise. Each day, Elio watches him luxuriate, periodically asking if he’s asleep. When Oliver isn’t dozing, he makes conversation with Elio, asking what he’s thinking about or talking to him about complex academic ideas, always impressed by Elio’s ability to engage in sophisticated intellectual conversations. Often, their conversations take sudden turns and become emotionally charged, as Elio constantly tries to determine the best thing to say and is sometimes offended by Oliver’s mood swings—one moment, Oliver will be playful and encouraging, and the next he’ll be cold and uninterested, gazing at Elio with a “chilly” look.
Eventually, Elio comes to understand that he’s attracted to Oliver, but he can’t bring himself to act upon his feelings. Instead, he tries to hide his emotions while simultaneously hoping Oliver will do something to acknowledge the energy flowing between them. At the same time, though, he balks whenever Oliver gives him an opportunity to reveal his feelings. One day, for instance, Oliver comes up behind him on the tennis court, throws an arm around him and with the other massages his shoulder, saying he seems tight. Elio is instantly overwhelmed and shrinks from Oliver’s touch. “A moment longer and I would have slackened,” he notes. Taken aback, Oliver apologizes, saying he must have pinched a nerve, though Elio later realizes that he must have seen through this act. “Knowing, as I later came to learn, how thoroughly trenchant was his ability to sort contradictory signals, I have no doubt that he must have already suspected something,” he writes.
Elio’s preoccupation with Oliver continues throughout the summer. Before long, Oliver starts partying with locals. He even strikes up a romantic relationship with a girl named Chiara, who’s closer in age to Elio. Around this time, Elio starts paying such close attention to Oliver’s moods that he ascribes different “personalities” to each of his four bathing suits: red means he’s “bold, set in his ways, very grown-up, almost gruff and ill-tempered”; yellow means he’s “sprightly, buoyant, funny, not without barbs”; green means he’s “acquiescent, eager to learn, eager to speak, sunny”; and blue is the color he has worn whenever he has showed Elio affection and attention, like when he massaged his shoulder or stepped into his bedroom from their shared balcony or picked up a glass Elio dropped in the grass and said, when Elio told him he didn’t have to do that, that he did it because he wanted to.
While hanging out in town one night with friends, Elio sees Oliver and Chiara walking arm-in-arm. Although Elio and Oliver have been avoiding each other at home—the tension between them palpable—they have a short conversation, disguising their feelings through small talk that they refract through Chiara and the other people present. Despite this roundabout way of communicating, Elio is delighted when Oliver delivers a veiled compliment to him before leaving. Later that night, Elio spends time with a girl named Marzia, who is very obviously attracted to him. “You’re not with me because you’re angry with Chiara?” she asks as they skinny dip in the dark ocean. “Why am I angry with Chiara?” he replies, and she says, “Because of him.” He assures her he doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and when they put their clothes on again, he kisses her and tells her to meet him at this spot the following night. She agrees and leaves, though not before instructing him not to tell anybody about their plans.
“We almost did it,” Elio tells his father and Oliver the following day during breakfast. His father asks why they didn’t, and Elio says he doesn’t know, so Oliver says, “Try again later.” Then he adds, “If not later, when?” This phrase haunts Elio, as he applies it to their own relationship, ultimately adding a sense of urgency to their situation. As he turns the sentence over in his mind, he wonders if Oliver has “found [him] out and uncovered each and every one of [his] secrets with those four cutting words.”
Finally, when he can’t take it any longer, Elio expresses his feelings for Oliver. “Do you know what you’re saying?” Oliver asks. “Yes,” Elio replies, “I know what I’m saying and you’re not mistaking any of it.” Having spoken so directly, he waits as Oliver runs inside to visit his translator. When he returns, though, it’s as if the conversation has died away. “I wish I hadn’t spoken,” he says after a while. “I’m going to pretend you never did,” Oliver responds, eventually saying they “can’t talk about such things.”
On the way back from town, Elio leads Oliver to one of his favorite places: Monet’s Berm, where Monet used to paint. Putting their bikes down, they continue their conversation, though they avoid speaking straightforwardly about the fact that they’re attracted to one another. Nonetheless, Oliver eventually admits he has known how Elio feels for a long time, despite how hard Elio has tried to hide it. Then, as if testing the waters, Oliver slides close and gently kisses Elio. “Better now?” he asks, but Elio doesn’t answer because he’s “not so sure” he enjoyed the kiss as much as he’d “expected,” so he decides to “test it again,” this time pressing his lips more passionately to Oliver’s. After a moment, Oliver pulls away and says they should go. “So far we’ve behaved. We’ve been good. Neither of us has done anything to feel ashamed of. Let’s keep it that way,” he says. Considering this, Elio places his hand on Oliver’s crotch, but this doesn’t change anything, and the two ride home for lunch, during which Oliver slides his foot over Elio’s beneath the table. As he presses his sole against the top of Elio’s arch, Elio suddenly gets a nosebleed and has to leave the table. Later, Oliver visits him in his room and asks if the bleeding was his fault. “Are you going to be okay?” he asks. “I thought I was,” Elio says. “I’ll get over it.” That night, Oliver goes out and doesn’t come home until late; Elio is convinced he’s had sex with somebody else.
The following days are tense between Oliver and Elio. Nothing sexual happens between them, and Oliver spends a considerable amount of time with ten-year-old Vimini, a lovable young girl who lives nearby and has leukemia. Meanwhile, Elio advances his relationship with Marzia. At one point, she admits she thinks Elio will end up hurting her, though she kisses him back passionately when he presses her against a wall. Elio’s struck by Marzia’s simultaneous “boldness” and her “sorrow,” amazed that she can speak so straightforwardly about her hesitations and then reach down his pants. Even as he enjoys this moment, he composes a note in his head that he leaves for Oliver later that night. It reads: Can’t stand the silence. I need to speak to you. Oliver responds the next day with his own note, which says: Grow up. I’ll see you at midnight. When the time finally arrives, Elio sneaks into Oliver’s bed and they have sex. When Oliver penetrates him, the pain makes him consider stopping the entire thing. Oliver notices this and asks if he should stop, but Elio doesn’t respond, and he continues. At one point, Oliver leans down and says, “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine.”
Although Elio enjoys his experience in Oliver’s bed, something feels off in the aftermath of their lovemaking. Lying against the sheets, he feels disgusted and in pain, wanting more than anything to leave Oliver’s bedroom. He feels as if he doesn’t want to “remember” the experience—he didn’t “hate it,” but nor does he want to think about it. This feeling continues throughout the night and into the morning, and Elio is sure he’ll never again want to sleep with Oliver, though by midday he finds himself flirting with Oliver in a way that is much more sexually charged than before. They decide to have sex again that night. Shortly thereafter, Elio and Marzia go to the beach and have sex.
Elio and Oliver’s relationship intensifies in the last weeks of his stay in Italy. When it’s finally time for Oliver to leave, he invites Elio to come with him to Rome, where he will stay for several days in order to finish his book and meet with his publisher. Elio’s parents allow him to go, and the trip turns into a romantic getaway for the two young men, who relish their last few days together by having sex and partying with a group of vibrant intellectuals they meet at a reading. When Elio returns to B., he’s devastated to have said goodbye to Oliver, but he tries to “neutralize” this pain by “anticipating” it. Sensing this, his father—who has picked up on his feelings for Oliver—advises him to embrace the emotional pain. “To feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste!” he says.
Over the next twenty years, Elio thinks only periodically of Oliver. When Oliver and his wife and kids visit Elio’s parents in Italy for Christmas one year, his mother calls him and puts Oliver on the phone. After only a moment, Oliver starts crying and hands the phone to Elio’s mother, and Elio’s surprised to find that he too is choked up. On another occasion, Elio visits the New England college town where Oliver teaches. Oliver insists that he come over for dinner, but Elio says he can’t—it’s too emotionally painful. Instead, they go for a drink at Elio’s hotel and discuss their past, both of them revealing that their relationship remains the most important love they’ve ever had. During yet another encounter, Oliver visits Italy and Elio takes him on a tour of the house, guiding him past the orle of paradise and other spots that remain the same. “I’m like you,” Oliver says at one point. “I remember everything.” Hearing this, Elio pauses and thinks that if Oliver truly remembers everything, then he should turn to him the next day before closing the taxi door and leaving, look him in the eye, and call him by his own name.