Thursday, July 24, 2014
Review: THE LINE OF BEAUTY, by Alan Hollinghurst
Reading a book like Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty really spoils you for other books, and no matter when you read it, you wonder what took you so long to get around to this luminous, sad and melancholy treasure.
Set in the 1980s among the political and social elite of London, it's basically a coming of age story about a character named Nick Guest, a gay man living in the home of his Oxford friend Toby Fedden. The Feddens are the epitome of political and social elite; father Gerald is a Tory MP whose star is on the rise, and it's the heyday of the Thatcher era. Toby and his friends are rich and carefree; they party, do drugs, have sex. Nick's background is more modest but he seems to fit right in. He's closeted, which in this time and place goes without saying, and coming out during the first flush of the AIDS crisis. But he's also anxious to be part of the gay life of London and begins a relationship with a man whom he meets through a personal ad. Later he and a member of the Feddens' set have a relationship too.
Nick is at the Feddens' because during college he was enamored of Toby and the two were friends, though nowadays it's Toby's sister Catherine to whom Nick is closest, and she's the only one who knows he's gay. She is also unstable and will cause the avalanche that brings everything down in the end.
Reading other reviews, the biggest problem other readers seem to have with the book is how unlikeable the characters are, and this is not a book to read if you're looking to meet your next literary best friend. But that consideration is as shallow as some of the characters in the book. This is a book in which the characters are just who they are, flawed and imperfect, just trying to make the best of things. Nick's boyfriends are the most sympathetic characters, to the extent anyone is. The Feddens are pretty much terrible people, with paper-thin loyalty and wholly beholden to public opinion, not the least because Gerald's career is that of an elected official. Nick is alienated from himself, trying to keep up a front while also trying to figure out who he is in the world.
What makes the book is Hollinghurst's incredibly beautiful writing, his detailed characterizations and his command of psychological nuances. It's like a Victorian novel set among 80s party kids. I can't pull out individual quotes because it's such a whole, every sentence flowing into the next. Reading it I just felt like, why can't every book be this good? It's definitely going to be among my favorites for the year and it's one of my favorites among the Booker winners, too. The story is tragic and sad, a love letter to an era that had its share of joy and pain, but it's that writing that will get you hooked and move you and make you feel for these deluded and difficult characters. It's so worth your time to read.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.