With his three previous novels, Alan Hollinghurst earned a reputation as an exacting writer with a gift for portraying a gay man's search for love, sex and beauty. With his fourth, The Line of Beauty (Bloomsbury, 438 pp., $24.95), winner of the 2004 Man Booker Prize, he lambastes these desires in a tale that is plangent and funny, and perfectly written.
Set between the British elections of 1983 and 1987, The Line of Beauty concerns one Nick Guest, a 21-year-old Oxford graduate who accepts the invitation to move into the posh Notting Hill mansion of his classmate Toby Fedden. In addition to being Nick's fantasy love interest, Toby is also the son of a Tory member of Parliament during Margaret Thatcher's conservative sweep of power. And so this living arrangement is made rather awkward by the fact that while Toby's father follows the party line, Nick is finally having his moment in the sun in London. He takes on a black lover and takes to calling Toby's sister "darling." The Feddens attempt to seem enlightened, and Nick does his very best to keep his behavior out of view.
The pressure and fizz of all this social collusion makes The Line of Beauty an intoxicating read. Nothing escapes Hollinghurst's awareness, especially when it travels through Nick's head. Early on in the novel the Feddens return from their country home in France, and Nick is briefly lulled into the fantasy that he is in fact one of them. Standing about while they unpack their luxuries, he observes, "Their return marked the end of his custodianship, and his real pleasure in seeing them again was stained with a kind of sadness he associated with adolescence, sadness of time flying and missed opportunities. He was keen for a word of gratitude to ease the mysterious ache."
As Nick evolves from a virgin naïf to a coke-addled party boy with a millionaire Lebanese boyfriend, The Line of Beauty becomes less a study in class than in how those on the margins of Thacherite London were tainted by that period's ecstatic vacuity. In his novel Dorian, Will Self revisited this period with a much heavier hand while paying homage to Wilde's classic. What's terrific about The Line of Beauty is that even as the story gallops toward hilarityat one party, Nick even dances with Thatcher herselfHollinghurst never indulges the penchant for caricature that made Dorian such an offensive novel. In fact, the book this one more aptly recalls is Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh's scurrilous satire of a coterie of party people whose lives teeter out of control during the run up to World War II. Both are narrated from the point of view of an outsider at first overcome by and then disgusted the glamorous society to which he has been given entrée.
Hollinghurst has always been compared to the world's best stylists, but he truly enters a category all his own with The Line of Beauty. It takes a delicate hand to poke fun at the fetishizing of style while being stylish oneself, but Hollinghurst pulls it off. Each sentence in this book rings as perfect and true as a Schubert sonata. In this sense, you might think that Hollinghurst is jeering at his protagonist; showing him how the true worship of beauty is done. In fact, even as this book dives toward its crushing finale, and AIDS puts an end to the impetuous sexuality Nick has so recently embraced, Hollinghurst retains a wincing affection for his protagonist. He is caught up in a moment larger than himself and reaches for beauty as a drowning man reaches for a buoy. Over the course of this beautiful and very funny novel, Nick learns how dangerous an instinct that can be.
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