It is impossible to know when, upon first meeting them, the role people will have in one’s life. That lays the foundation for André Aciman’s Eight White Nights, a novel that gives readers chills not only for its depiction of winter but also because of its unflinching insight into the complexities of human relationships.
It all stars with an introduction at a party. What ensues is a rather atypical romance with some typical emotional responses. The phrase I am Clara is how the introduction is made, and it is repeated so often in the first few pages that the reader may wonder why Aciman dwells on this. There is a method to his madness, though: the slow development allows him to do a wonderful job of expressing all the intangibles that come with the onset of romance—things like anxiety, hope, excitement and much more. Expressing these in words seems like an impossible task; while it may be difficult, Aciman does it with considerable skill.
This same style stretches over the entirety of the novel. Told over the course of the eight nights referenced in the title, the pace is quite deliberate. While this contributes to Aciman’s ability to capture the intricacies of human relationships, the main character’s introspection becomes somewhat redundant. It is not always pleasant to slog through the molasses-laden words of the narrative, but it is worth it. While Aciman’s subtlety slows the story, it is important for accomplishing his character’s presence.
Winter imagery is a large part of the story, and this theme presents an interesting parallel to the relationship that ensues. The snow and wintry weather offer a surreal natural surrounding that enhances the events and feelings the characters exhibit. The descriptions of winter in the city and the park are vivid and they create a magic relevant to the passion–and chill–of the romance. Literary buffs will recognize (and appreciate) references to Dostoevsky and subtle allusions to James Joyce.
Since the novel is a first-person narrative, the perception of Clara is somewhat skewed by the reactions and thoughts of the male narrator. In many instances she seems contradictory, as pretentious as she is charming, and a complete enigma. But the main character is similar in his reactions to Clara and her actions. He constantly second-guesses himself and his decisions regarding her. While this all contributes to Aciman’s ability to capture the mindset of people experiencing romance, it becomes repetitive if not downright annoying; there is actually a scene where each character refuses to end their phone call, embodying the typical cliché.
Yet this is part of the story’s charm and Aciman’s skill, because almost everyone experiences these feelings, finding themselves subject to the clichés and uncertainties tangled around the concept of the complicated word love. Eight White Nights is a satisfactory story, but the true strength of the narrative is the embodiment of feelings that most everyone experiences, regardless of location or circumstances.