The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst

Before starting on the book, I want to mention my process for this blog. As mentioned in the description, I write each week about a book or other story I’ve read that week or possibly earlier. Some books take a while to percolate. I don’t blog about every book I read, but sometimes, as is the case today, I find myself thinking and writing about a book I had no intention of including in this blog. Also, other than a review I might run across in one of the periodicals to which I subscribe, I do not read reviews until after I’ve written about the book; I might then go back and edit if they significantly change my mind.

So I came to this book cold, not having read anything by the author. From the cover I knew that it had won the Booker Prize, often a good indication that I will find the book interesting. The Line of Beauty is the story of Nick Guest, a recent Oxford graduate, who has come to London to make his way in the world, starting with graduate work at University College of London, perhaps a study of style or Henry James. He is staying in the home of the Feddens, the son Toby having been a close friend of his at school. He ends up staying there for over four years, thinking of himself as “the lost middle child” of the family, brother to Toby and to Catherine, who is emotionally (and perhaps mentally) unstable. Their mother, Rachel, a calm, reserved woman, welcomes Nick to their home, a luxurious, art-filled residence in Notting Hill, far different from the suburban home in Barwick where Nick’s parents live, where the only art is on loan from Don Guest’s antique shop.

As the story opens, Gerald Fedden, paterfamilias, has just won an election as a Tory MP. It is the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s heyday, and the book captures well the mysterious reverence toward “The Lady”. Nick is also about to go on a blind date with a man named Leo, whose photo has virginal Nick salivating. Toby, whose “sleepy beauty” haunts Nick, is heterosexual and has never suspected the lust behind Nick’s devotion to him.

For all Nick’s talk of Henry James, the book reminds me most of Brideshead Revisited, a young man adoring and adopting the far wealthier family of his schoolfriend, cautiously accepted by the distant, patrician mother until her so-called disappointment at his perceived betrayal. The difference, of course, is that London is visited, not revisted, unmediated by the veil of memory and nostalgia. Also, Nick remains outside the family because of his homosexuality, rather than Charles Ryder’s anti-Catholicism.

As an outsider, Nick’s view of the hedonistic, Thatcher-mad London of the 1980s is smart and often quite funny. He satirises them mercilessly, even as he hovers between mocking them and begging them to let him in. The clever language and delicious descriptions kept me reading until the end, but I was curiously bored by the book. There is a hollowness at the center of it.

I didn’t care about any of the characters. I neither liked nor disliked them. Nick himself doesn’t seem to care about anyone either. Although Nick is initially bowled over by his sexual encounters with Leo, he doesn't seem to actually know Leo as a person or care about him as more than the source of sexual pleasure. Nick says that his heart belongs to Toby, but we hardly see Toby in the book. Nick seems to retain a sentimental fondness for him even when noting how complacent and fat Toby has become.

I didn’t mind the graphic homosexual encounters, but because of their lack of eroticism, they were a bit boring. Only the first date with Leo has an erotic aura, as Nick walks behind Leo, moved almost beyond bearing by the nape of his neck, the waistline of his jeans. After that, the sex is only hard and fast, often fueled by cocaine. Nick’s emotions, beyond lust, are drawn from a limited palette: desire to be as wealthy and successful as the Feddens, mild embarrassment about his parents. Not until near the end, when AIDS begins to make itself felt in Nick’s world, does Nick seem to feel any strong, genuine emotion.

The book seemed to me all flash and no feeling. Appropriate for the 1980s, I guess, and a cultural artifact like the Byatt books I’ve discussed recently, but I felt cheated. I felt like the judges on So You Think You Can Dance: the performance was technically perfect but I wanted him to leave it all on the stage.

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