“You’re so fucking forbidding with your hot-cold, fire-ice, speak-don’t-speak airs” – Eight White Nights by André Aciman

When our good editor sent round January’s review list, this was the novel that caught my eye. The New York Times had described it as an homage to Eric Rohmer and Marcel Proust and, as a one-time student of French literature and cinema, I believed myself adequately equipped with points of reference and pretentious affectations to enjoy that kind of thing. (I used to ape Jean-Paul Belmondo in A Bout de Souffle by holding my Gauloises between middle and ring finger, dammit.)

Unfortunately, a few well-placed quotes and nods to works of art and film oeuvres do not a novel make, and I’ll admit to skimming a good number of sections in this 360-page tome. Some paragraphs feel little more than a writing exercise, with clever wordplay and poetic language in spades but not all that much in the way of purpose or narrative drive. Sure, Aciman knows his stuff (I can detect literary influences ranging from F Scott Fitzgerald and Alexandre Dumas Fils to George Orwell and even Jean-Paul Sartre), but it tends more towards something that has been written by a scholar of authors than something that has been written by an author per se.

The storyline is fairly flimsy, although it’s a pleasant enough premise and one that would most likely hold up as a shorter piece (it’s the sort of subject matter that works for American-in-Paris Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, for example, and Françoise Sagan, whose jukebox scene in A Certain Smile is echoed here). The protagonist – whose real name we are never privy to, but is given the moniker Oskár – meets his heart’s desire at a lavish Great Gatsby-esque Christmas Eve party in a snowbound uptown Manhattan. After being scared off by her acid tongue and fancy friends, he then spends the lead-up to the New Year celebrations bumping into Clara accidentally-on-purpose at a week-long Rohmer retrospective and agonising about committing to a relationship as every day passes. A lot of rather excruciating internal debate ensues, and some painful actual dialogue too: this woman is not just complicated; she’s picky, prickly and prone to temper tantrums one minute and stony silences the next. “You’re so fucking forbidding with your hot-cold, fire-ice, speak-don’t-speak airs”, he complains at one point.

The pair persists with the game of chess, however, as they share many things in common (posh backgrounds, being part of the in crowd, dead parents, failed relationships: baggage, in other words), enjoy playing about with their own made-up lingo or “blandspeak”, and are bowled over by physical attraction: he describes her as “a woman whose beauty could easily overwhelm you”. We are also afforded glimpses into the fact that they aren’t really as selfish or shallow as they seem to make out to each other, which they presumably do as a defence mechanism (she says she’s “lying low”; he also seems to be on the rebound): Max and Margo obviously love it when Clara drops in for tea; equally, the warm and welcoming Rachel and Julia have missed their male friend when he finally shows up the day before New Year’s Eve. These episodes, in fact, and those when other characters are involved, such as Lauren in the bakery, Olaf and Orla in the coffee shop, and his mother in her lonely apartment, are all points where the prose sparkles and the true Aciman shines through with his sharp observations of people’s behaviour. It’s just a shame he feels such need to cushion these moments with filler and facsimiles.

Any Cop?: It’s unfortunate this novel is so long as it could work nicely if it were about half the size with much less waffle: trop, in the words of Clara.

Sarah-Clare Conlon

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