Elio reflects on Oliver’s typical farewell, “Later!” To him, the word carries a harsh, curt attitude, as though spoken with indifference. It is the first thing he remembers about Oliver and it encapsulates the attitude that Elio perceives from Oliver.
Elio is the 17-year-old son of a college professor. His family spends summers living in their villa on the Italian Riviera, together with a visiting academic fellow whom his parents select every year to live with them for 6 weeks and revise a manuscript of their own. Elio gives up his room to accommodate this year’s fellow, Oliver, a 24-year-old post-doctoral fellow from Columbia University who specializes in pre-Socratic philosophers, particularly Heraclitus. Elio lives in the adjoining room that summer, and the two share a balcony.
The family and guest enjoy the company of servants whom they treat like family, the residents of nearby villas, and colleagues whom Elio’s father invites for meals and conversations with Oliver. Summer days at the villa are slow and relaxed: Oliver spends time working with Elio’s father or revising his own manuscript while tanning by the pool, while Elio enjoys transcribing music, reading, and playing sports with friends and neighbors.
When Oliver first arrives, Oliver gives him a tour of the house, the surrounding grounds, and the nearby town, "B." Soon after Oliver’s arrival, Elio notices the pale, soft underside of his hands, feet, and forearms, and he contemplates the beginning of his attraction towards Oliver. As he spends time getting to know Oliver, Elio struggles to conceal his feelings of attraction. He feels intimidated by Oliver’s seeming indifference and standoffishness, and he laments the cold way in which Oliver responds to him when he offers to show him around more of his favorite spots: he simply says, "Later." Although Oliver seems difficult and unapproachable, Elio continues to harbor a growing infatuation and longs to be physically intimate with him, all the while fearing that his own words or demeanor might expose his feelings. Despite this, their friendship develops slowly. The two converse on music, literature, and philosophy. Oliver finds the range of Elio’s knowledge on these subjects impressive, considering how young he is. The two run together in the mornings. Elio, doubtful that Oliver reciprocates his feelings, conceals them by affecting silence and indifference.
One morning, Chiara, one of Elio's neighbors, arrives to meet Oliver and convinces him to join her on the beach. Over the course of the coming week, they begin spending more time together on boat rides, at the beach, and in B. Elio can tell that Chiara is smitten; he dreads both losing Oliver to her, and he dreads losing her to Oliver. Elio still fantasizes about their relationship, however, which he presumes is sexual in nature, and he finds excitement in the thought. Elio talks to Oliver about Chiara, seemingly trying to set him up with her, but Oliver rebukes him and tells him to drop the subject. Later, Oliver confesses to not being interested in Chiara. Around this time, Oliver begins seeing a girl his age named Marzia; he spends a night with her swimming naked, but he does not have sex with her.
Elio’s attraction to Oliver continues to grow. Elio, inflamed with desire, feels frustrated that he cannot talk to anyone about it, and wishes that he could tell Oliver himself. One afternoon, while the house is empty, Elio goes into Oliver’s room, takes one of Oliver’s bathing suits, smells it, and puts it on. Then he takes it off, cuddles it in Oliver’s bed while naked, and confesses his desires into the pillow. This alleviates his frustrations, but he reflects further that he’d rather die than face Oliver’s cold stare after telling him.
The first thing that Elio remembers about Oliver is his farewell. This sets up the novel as a narrated sequence of memories and foreshadows that Oliver's presence in his life will not be permanent—his arrival is his farewell. One gleans that Elio is shy and introverted from the way in which he projects feelings of nervousness and insecurity onto this farewell, detecting a feeling of coldness and indifference in Oliver's tone of voice when he says it. His analysis of Oliver's mannerisms and choice of words also give the impression that he is deeply thoughtful, if over-analytical.
The villa is populated with academics, and this gives Aciman the opportunity to weave in an extensive variety of literary, philosophical, and artistic allusions. Elio's father is an academic, Oliver is an expert on pre-Socratic philosophy, and Elio himself is exceptionally literate and able to converse with his father's academic guests. Heraclitus and pre-Socratic philosophy become a central motif in the story and reflect the novel's focus as a coming-of-age and romance novel in which Elio develops into a new unity with Oliver.
Elio's ability to transcribe music from one composer into the style of another, and again transform that transcription into the style of an additional composer, is similar to the way in which words evolve etymologically through different languages, cultures, and time periods. The notion that things transform over time and irrevocably depend on prior permutations represents his experience with Oliver and the impact that it will have on his future romantic experiences. This theme is treated more explicitly in later chapters, as in the discussion of the Basilica of San Clemente.
Chiara's relationship with Oliver, which doesn't develop into anything lasting, serves as a foil to Oliver's own desire for Oliver and his own casual relationship with Marzia. Both of these relationships help to point out Elio and Oliver's bisexuality. The treatment of desire, friendship, and sexual attraction in the novel is also very liberal: Oliver and Elio interact erotically with Chiara and Marzia in a manner as seemingly natural as breathing. However, this provides a contrast to the way in which they interact with each other, which includes much hesitance, silence, and obsession.