four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
14-Jan-Feb-2005
Awards: 
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It’s 1983. Margaret Thatcher has just been reelected. The economy’s in ruins. AIDS hovers in the background. And 20-year-old Nicholas Guest, a naïve, gay, Henry James scholar about to start his doctorate, has just moved into the Freddens’ blissful Kensington Park Gardens mansion. And he’ll do just about anything to stay.

The Freddens’ sumptuous home is a far cry from Nick’s middle-class upbringing. Gerald, a new Tory Parliament member, his wife Rachel, and their two kids, Toby (whom Nick lusted after at Oxford) and Catherine, a manic-depressive, live a life of privilege. Their empty "looking-glass world" of high tea, black-tie dinners, and private musical recitals challenges Nick at every turn. But, because he knows good furniture when he sees it, he fits "oddly but snugly" into their household as a parasitic outsider. Charm, insincerity, and a sense of entitlement are all the survival skills he needs for his four years with the Freddens. When asked at a dinner party what Henry James would make of his companions, Nick answers: "He’d have been very kind to us, he’d have said how wonderful we were and how beautiful we were … and we wouldn’t have realized until just before the end that he’d seen right through us."

Ignoring the hypocrisy and racism around him, Nick loses his virginity to a working class Jamaican civil servant, Leo. He then acquires a closeted Lebanese millionaire playboy, Wani, who introduces him to three-way sex, cocaine, and gay metropolitan culture. Nick pursues beauty and aesthetics while his friends aspire to wealth and power. But, by 1987, these high times teeter on the edge of collapse.
Bloomsbury. 438 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 1582345082

Critical Themes

Henry James, redux. Critics agree that a Jamesian spirit hovers over novel. Hollinghurst captures the snobbery, racism, and conservatism of the Thatcher era while wringing his characters inside and out to expose their shallowness. The Los Angeles Times writes that Hollinghurst "may be Jamesian, but he is more pitched into the world" with his political commentary. By contrast, the Miami Herald claims that the novel lacks James’ "intense, unflinching psychological insights." So, Jamesian it is, despite dissent as to how Jamesian—but let’s not forget some other Nick namesakes, including F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, the outsider infatuated with Gatsby’s glamour.

The "me" decade. Hollinghurst offers insightful perspective into the smug, materialistic ‘80s. "The story may focus on the uneasy coexistence among different classes and races," notes the San Francisco Chronicle, "… but the times themselves are the central character." In this story of moral and material vacuity, the setting meshes perfectly with the plot, themes, and characters. In fact, Hollinghurst "gets Nick and his decade so right that you can’t help wondering what sort of vision [he] may deliver of our own far-too-interesting times" (Seattle Times). Will it be Jamesian, Tom Wolfeian, or … Hollinghurstian?

The line of beauty. The novel’s title comes from English painter William Hogarth, who defined the epitome of beauty as an architectural motif: a particular double curve, the ogee. Hollinghurst plays with this theme; "line of beauty" refers to cocaine, the curves of a man’s back, and Ogee, Wani’s new magazine. The metaphor also captures the characters’ general interest in pretty, trivial diversions. Nick even quotes James on this matter: "It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance … and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process." Too bad Nick’s shallow, soulless crowd can never understand this beauty.

Christian Science Monitor 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Line for line, Hollinghurst’s novel about London during the 1980s is the most exquisitely written book I’ve read in years. … Some critics have played up the novel’s political and social satire, and those elements are certainly there and brilliant, but I wonder if it’s squeamishness or political correctness that keeps them from stating that this is primarily a story about gay sexuality and it contains scenes that many readers will find deeply offensive." Ron Charles

Entertainment Weekly 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Hollinghurst has placed his gay protagonist within a larger social context, and the result is his most tender and powerful novel to date, a sprawling and haunting elegy to the 1980s. … Hollinghurst handles the arrival of the disease [AIDS] with characteristic, devastating restraint." Jennifer Reese

Hartford Courant 4.5 of 5 Stars
"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 on the run up to World War II. … Hollinghurst has always been compared with the world’s best stylists, but he truly enters a category all his own with The Line of Beauty." John Freeman

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Most audacious of all is Hollinghurst’s introduction of ‘the Lady,’ otherwise known as Margaret Thatcher, a presence felt throughout the book but, like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, invisible until near the end. … It is also of a piece with the elegiac close, rendered with a grace and decorum entirely appropriate to this outstanding novel." Anthony Quinn

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Hollinghurst may be Jamesian, but he is more pitched into the world; his novels are classically enveloping experiences. It is only worrisome that The Line of Beauty, one of the most mentally nurturing reads this year, is so similar to The Swimming-Pool Library; one hopes that Hollinghurst, who should be beloved, will take us farther afield in the future." Benjamin Lytal

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Call it The Ambassadors meets Bright Lights, Big City. … On the basis of what he accomplishes word-by-word and sentence-by-sentence, Hollinghurst must be considered among the most naturally gifted talents we have today, one just now coming into his own." Andrew Ervin

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"It is in part because of the benefit of hindsight that we know how things will turn out for Nick, Wani and the rest of them, but as superficial as these characters are, Hollinghurst maintains our interest in them on the page, even if we wouldn’t necessarily want to sit down to tea with them. He does it, simply, through exquisite writing, lushly stylized with just the right words, over and over again." David Wiegand

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"… Hollinghurst is one of the best writers of party scenes since F. Scott Fitzgerald. … The novel, while providing a rueful, snapshot-accurate portrait of its era, also illuminates in a powerfully persuasive way what a huge growing-up process goes on between the ages of 20 and 25." Michael Upchurch

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"… a sumptuous, if prolix, portrait of dissolute 1980s London, when greed and power bespoke glamour and privilege. … The descriptions are always lush, the repartee is always droll (very British), but they can be soporific." Don Lee

Critical Summary

The Line of Beauty is the first novel focused on gay life to win the Booker Prize, yet it does more than glance back at the sometimes frivolous and deadly aspects of London’s gay culture. Hollinghurst, acknowledged as one of his generation’s best writers, is an incisive social and political satirist. With a sly wit, he confirms stereotypes about class, family, society, politics, and sexuality in ‘80s-era London—just like Henry James did for late nineteenth-century New York and European society. Hollinghurst handles serious themes with a light touch—and a soft dose of morality.

What emerges is a remarkable psychological portrait of an era. There’s the obsequious Nick, who can’t deal with power around him, his benumbed lovers, smarmy politicians, and coke dealers. In his previous novels Hollinghurst all but ignored women; here, they come into their own. Rachel possesses a "velvety graciousness lined with steel," Catherine represents the conscience of the decade, and Margaret Thatcher hovers on the sidelines, threatening to make a highly anticipated cameo any moment (New York Times Book Review).

The "pointillist attention to detail makes every character fascinating" (Miami Herald). The characters’ richness—or, rich vacuity—complements Hollinghurst’s exquisite prose and lavish set details; in one scene, Nick comments on art from his drug dealer’s car. But critics couched a few minor complaints amid their effusive praise. Hollinghurst’s homosexuals are all oversensitive, lonely, doomed, and engage in graphic sex. Some critics found the lengthy discourses on culture tedious. Finally, Nick’s four-year lodging at the Freddens, with his secret affairs, often belies reality. Small criticisms, really—this book is deserving of the Booker.