The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

The Book Brothel   The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available), 438 pages, 2004

Rating: 10/10

Reason for Reading: The 2004 winner of my favourite award, the Booker Prize.

Synopsis: In the year 1983, 20-year-old Nick leads what is, to him, a very complicated life. He’s a wannabe trying desperately to fit into a wealthy, politically active family, convinced that he’s got the smarts and culture to pull it off. He’s desperate to impress his friend Toby’s father, Gerald, an ambitious man of politics with a determination to make it into Prime Minister Thatcher’s inner circles, but it’s going to take a lot to win the approval of a group that speaks casually of dukes and the expensive artwork hanging in their homes. Nick’s dilemma? He believes that the thing he wants the most – to find a man he can love and that will love him in return – is his biggest obstacle to acceptance by the elite crowd.

Why you should read this book: Oh what a tangled web we weave…it’s hard to begrudge Nick for all of his deceptions – its the 80s and it seems like everyone around him is simply handed everything they could ever desire, and all of his artistic learnings and culture aren’t worth anywhere close to what he’d like them to be. Nick is a strikingly real character, consumed by a world of appearances, constantly sizing up everyone around him – both appraising them and judging himself through the eyes of others. Through all of Nick’s confusion, mixed messages and bravado, Hollinghurst keeps his writing clean and clear, even as Nick does an about-face within a single sentence. A completely absorbing novel, and one with a unique point of view, as very little literature about gay men in the volatile 1980s has reached a mainstream audience. Of the three novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize of 2004 that I’ve read, this one is the strongest – it sustains it’s high quality all the way to the end, and the only elitism exists in Nick’s world, not in the language of the book. Hollinghurst manages to make the struggle for finding the perfect word seem effortless, resulting in the reader always knowing exactly what Nick is feeling or how the scene is shaping up. Yup, there’s no disappointment here: The Line of Beauty is Booker-worthy. Consider this a glowing, rave review and get yourself to a bookstore or library as soon as possible.

Why you should avoid this book: While generally a sympathetic character, Nick has a lot of extremes where he can come off as utterly pompous before returning to his usual insecure self, both of which are traits that can make a character irritating even if it is important to Nick’s character development. While the sex scenes in the book are never gratuitious (Nick’s sex life is, after all, the issue blocking him from an imagined life of wealth and greatness), it can be graphic, along with some drug-habits that develop among a few characters.

Opening paragraph:

Peter Crowther’s book on the election was already in the shops. It was called Landslide!, and the witty assistant at Dillon’s had arranged the window in a scaled-down version of that natural disaster. The pale-gilt image of the triumphant Prime Minister rushed toweards the customer in a gleaming slippage. Nick stopped in the street, and then went in to look at a copy. He had met Peter Crowther once, and heard him described as a hack and also as a ‘mordant analyst': his faint smile, as he flicked through the pages, concealed his uncertainty as to which account was nearer the truth. There was clearly something hacklike in the speed of publication, only two months after the event; and in the actual writing, of course. The book’s mordancy seemed to be reserved for the efforts of the Opposition. Nick looked carefully at the photographs, but only one of them had Gerald in it: a group picture of ‘The 101 New Tory MPs,’ in which he’d been clever enough, or quick enough, to get in the front row. He sat there smiling and staring as if in his own mind it was already the front bench. The smile, the white collar worn with a dark shirt, the floppy breast-pocked handkerchief would surely be famous when the chaps in the rows behind were mere forgotten grins and frowns. Even so, he was mentioned only twice in the text – as a ‘bon viveur,’ and as one of the ‘dwindling minority’ of Conservative MPs who had passed, ‘as Gerald Fedden, the new Member for Barwick, so obviously has,’ through public school and Oxbridge. Nick left the shop with a shrug; but out in the street he felt delayed pride at this sighting of a person he knew in a published book.

Fabulous quotes:

Toby said, ‘I’m just going upstairs to see if I can find those trousers. Are you going to Nat’s bash, Nick?’
‘What is it?’ said Nick, with another dimmer pang at the thought of another kind of party, a posh white hetero one, at which his presence was not thought necessary.
‘Oh, he’s having this Seventies party…’ said Toby hopelessly.
‘No, I’m not invitied,’ said Nick, with a superior smile, thinking of the loving closeness he had felt with Nat at Hawkeswood, when they were both stoned and sitting on the floor. ‘Is it in London?’
‘That’s the thing. It’s up at the blasted castle,’ said Toby.
‘Yes…It’s absurdly soon, isn’t it, for a Seventies party?’ said Nick. ‘I mean, the Seventies were so ghastly, why would anyone want to go back to them?’ He’d been longing for a chance to see the castle – a marcher fortress with Wyatt interiors.

Sam took him through and down into a chlorine-smelling basement where the gym and lap-pool were. ‘It’s such a godsend, this place,’ he said. Nick thought it was very small, and hardly compared with the Y; he saw that he came to a gym as a gay place, but that this one wasn’t gay. An old man in a white jacket handed out towels and looked seasoned to the obscenities of the bankers. Nick did a perfunctory circuit, really just to oblige Sam, who was pedalling on a bike and filling in the Times crossword. He felt he didn’t know Sam very well, and had a vague sensation of being patronized. Sam’s friendly Oxford cleverness had hardened, he had a glint to him like the building itself, a watchful half-smile of secret knowledge. All around them other men were slamming weights up and down. Nick wasn’t sure if they were working up their aggression or working it off. In the showers they shouted esoteric boasts from stall to stall.

Also recommended: Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre; Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards; Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie; Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Also by this author: The Swimming Pool Library; The Folding Star; The Spell.

Fun tidbit: Wondering about Booker Prize judges’ reading preferences? This might hold a clue: fellow shortlisted novel The Master by Colm Toibin is written from the point of view of Henry James, while in The Line of Beauty, Nick is writing his masters thesis on James.

Would I read more by this author? I think I’ll throw The Folding Star onto my to-be-read list, as it was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I’ll see how that is before adding others, just because Hollinghurst’s four novels seem to have very similar themes. If they’re equally well-written, though, I can handle a bit of repetition.

Awards: Booker Prize: winner, 2004.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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