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When Nick Guest graduates from Oxford University, he moves into his friend Toby's family home in London as a lodger while he completes his postgraduate studies. This is no ordinary house; it is the home of prominent Tory MP Gerard Fedden, his wife Rachel, Toby and their sensitive and impulsive daughter Catherine. Nick is catapulted into a world of privilege and wealth where antiques and works of art line the rooms and lords and ladies are regular dinner guests. Nick seems to be accepted as part of the family and is a trusted confidant and is invited to all family events and holidays but the real nature of his ties to the family are revealed when disaster strikes.
The Line of Beauty is set over the period 1983 to 1987, a period when Thatcher was in power and greed was good with those at the top of the pile making and spending vast amounts of money and entertaining lavishly. Strangely, other than the lives of the elite, the political mood of the 80s is not shown at all with Catherine being the only person who even mildly objects to these vulgar shows of wealth. Thatcher worship was particularly strong amongst the Tory set with the male MPs being particularly under her spell. The Lady, as she is referred to in hushed tones, even makes a personal appearance in the book.
Nick is a gay man who comes out and has his first relationship and sexual encounter near the beginning of the book. I was initially shocked by the graphic sex scenes, but soon those sordid encounters became routine. I have got to say that the sex lives of gay men were portrayed in less than rosy terms in the book with numerous sad and sleazy anonymous encounters being the norm. The 80s was the decade of AIDS rearing its ugly head with all of the implications. Nick has two relationships, one a rather tender one with a young black man met through the personal ads and another with closeted playboy millionaire Wani who uses his money and power to buy anything he wants, including lovers.
I enjoyed reading about the characters' lives in the book but I can't say that many of them were particularly likeable. I could almost picture Gerard Fedden as a bumbling kind of Boris character, the typical Tory MP whose wealth makes him hopelessly out of touch with those he is meant to represent. Another character who also stood out for me was Ourani, a businessman who struck me as a Mohammed Al Fayed type character. The younger generation were more concerned with their sex and social lives than power and this bunch of mostly ex public school and Oxford educated party animals did not strike me as the brightest and best of their generation.
They say power corrupts and this eventually leads to the downfall of more than one character in the book.
The Line Of Beauty was the latest choice for reading at my book group and I have to say it was an odd choice from a girl who grew up in a mining village in the heart of Scotland whose family is full of Labour party activists who were actively campaigning against Tory policies in the 1980s, especially the miners' strike. It was a book that got a very mixed reception with some loving it and some actively hating it.
I personally found the book to be very hard work. At 512 pages long, there were a lot of pages to plod through which would have been fine if all of the material was interesting but it dragged really badly in places. Vast swathes of writing were given over to mind-numbingly boring descriptions of beautiful objects and people, indeed one reader commented that in the first 40% of the book nothing happens except some posh people go to a couple of parties. If the book had not been required reading then I would have given up after the first few chapters but I had to plough on and my heart sank every time I picked the book up to read another chunk. The story did pick up eventually and become far more interesting and all the threads of the story came together nicely but the hours spent getting there were tedious.
I don't know how well the 80s are captured to be honest, there were a few quaint details concerning the lack of modern technology (who can remember a life without mobile phones?) but apart from that and the political lives of the very rich then it could have been set in any era. I think a lot more could have been made of the attitudes to homosexuality at the time, especially since the central character is a gay man. The 1980s were a time when the Tory government brought in the notorious section 28 legislation and homophobia was rife yet Nick seems to be surrounded by a very socially liberal bunch of right wingers who do not bat an eyelid when he comes out.
Alan Hollinghurst has skilfully weaved together a tale about the obsession with beauty of both people and objects. The characters are brilliant but due to the convoluted prose and slow pace of the story developing I would not really recommend it and only give it 5 out of 10.
** Short version of the plot **
The appropriately-named ingénue and self-avowed 'aesthete' Nicholas Guest moves in with a worldly family of rich Tories and accidentally contributes to their rather ghastly downfall. Oops!
** Longer version of the plot **
It's the summer of 1983 and 20-year-old innocent Nick Guest has just graduated from Oxford with a first-class degree in English and brown-nosing. Nick's only a country boy from Northamptonshire who only owns one dinner jacket, but thanks to his friendship with Toby, the son of rich businessman and new Tory MP Gerald Fedden, Nick has the opportunity to move up in the world. The Feddens kindly invite Nick to live with them in their posh Notting Hill abode while he slums it at UCL, where he's writing a PhD on Henry James. Although Nick is in (unrequited) love with Toby, his real purpose in the Fedden home is to look out for their unstable daughter, Catherine, who has a propensity to go out with very unsuitable men. That summer, following a landslide victory by the Conservatives in the general election, Nick basks in the glow of his new-found status as an MP's lodger and his first relationship with a young man.
Fast-forward three years to 1986, and Nick is no longer a newcomer on the capital's gay scene, but at the heart of it. But things are turning dangerous for Nick's social circle, with the double threat of AIDS and cocaine addiction having reared its head among London's nightlife enthusiasts. Meanwhile Gerald Fedden is on track for a position in the Cabinet - but thanks to his young house-guest, it could all come tumbling down.
** My humble opinion **
I must say I was expecting more from this novel, considering it won the 2004 Man Booker Prize and got some rave reviews.
The most positive thing I can say is that this is a finely-crafted and beautifully-told tale. It seems that Hollinghurst's forte is descriptive writing, and my lasting impression after the finishing the novel was one of gardens and streets in the summertime dusk, of sunlight reflecting off water and of elegant curves of antique furniture, wrought iron and lovers' bodies - all recurring motifs in this book. The 'line of beauty' of the title refers to an artistic concept, a double curve which is present in various kinds of art and architecture, as well as the human form, and is a fitting name for the art-lover and sex-lover Nick. Perhaps even more appropriately, it also refers to lines of cocaine, which play an increasingly prominent role in this tale of 1980s excess.
However, the story itself is quite predictable - I felt that the hints early on in the plot left little room for surprises later on. I worked out quickly who was having an affair with whom, who was secretly gay, who was going to die etc. The plot didn't have that much momentum to it, either, but meandered along towards an anti-climax. Yes, the Feddens end up in a spot of bother at the end, but it's not too bad in the grand scheme of things; such an established family with 'old money' is able to recover from comparatively minor setbacks like this. At the end of the novel, it doesn't seem that the life of the Feddens is going to change to that great an extent. Nick's life will be different, but it's not clear how, exactly. This open ending would be tantalising or maybe even frustrating if Nick's character were engaging enough, but I didn't really care what happened to him.
For such a long novel the characters were surprisingly under-developed. Many are simply stereotypes: there's Gerald Fedden, the blustering, overbearing Tory MP, and his self-contained wife Rachel. Their son Toby is an amiable pretty-boy who seems more a prop than an actual person, while the manic-depressive daughter Catherine is scornful of her parents and given to the usual teenage rebellion - smoking, drinking, wearing short dresses and going out with unsuitable men etc. There's also a spoilt, lazy, languid French-speaking millionaire and Nick's homely, fussy parents, as well as a whole host of Conservative MPs and Lords and their wives who were all so interchangeable I never really grasped who was who.
There are no likable characters, apart from maybe Toby Fedden and his mother Rachel Fedden. But I think they were simply less unlikeable than the others, and probably only because they featured less. The novel is narrated in the third person, but entirely from Nick's perspective, and I found his character quite difficult to grasp. He is neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic to me. He always seems to hover in the middle ground: neither very posh nor particularly working-class, it is difficult to pin him down to anything. I found myself unable to sympathise with his character in general - his first love affair is quite touching, but his main relationship in the book (with a handsome multi-millionaire) is completely unconvincing. The only reason he ever gives for loving his rich boyfriend is that he is beautiful. Beauty is everything to Nick, who loves art and architecture as much as literature and handsome men - he is the kind of person who "gasps with delight" at the view when he walks into a church and collects clever lines from novels so that he can use them to jazz up his everyday speech. I can't say this made me warm to him, but he wasn't annoying enough to irritate me, either.
One element that did annoy me was that there is no explanation given for Nick's development from being very anti-drugs in the first part of the book to suddenly being a seasoned cocaine user/addict in the second part. I was also disappointed that the author didn't make more of the era in which the novel is set - the Thatcher years. Yes, the mood of the time is reflected in the conspicuous consumption in London, and there are details about the 1986 election, Gerald's work in his constituency and even of Margaret Thatcher (who features as a character halfway through the novel). But it's not a portrait of how Britain, or London, or even Notting Hill fared under Thatcher's government. Rather, it's quite a rambling and empty novel about art and beauty and - in my opinion - only goes skin deep.
** Oh, and at 501 pages I don't think I'll be reading it again! **
'The Line of Beauty' by Alan Hollinghurst won the Booker Prize in 2004, going up against novels by Achmat Dangor, Sarah Hall, David Mitchell, Colm Toibin and Gerard Woodward. Hollinghurst had written three novels previous to this one.
The book follows the life of the main character, Nick, a young, gay man living with his university friend Toby's parents; who's father is an MP under Thatcher's government. The book is divided into three sections, each one detailing a different period of Nick's life. The book focuses closely on the relationships Nick forms with the people around him, whether they are friends or lovers.
The reason I read this book was because I am doing a course on the Booker Prize winners at university this term, this was actually the first book I read from the reading list, and it set a very good tone for the rest of the course.
This novel epitomises the eighties; tackling the issues of politics, beauty, aids, drug use and society. When Hollinghurst won the booker, much was made in the media of the fact that this is a 'gay novel'; the Daily Express headline reading "Booker Won by Gay Sex" shortly after the result was announced. When we were discussing this novel in our seminar, someone made the comment that they didn't like the novel because of the graphic nature of some of the sex scenes. Now, I personally did not find that this was an issue when I was reading the book, of course, the sex in the novel is a prominant issue, but this is not the only subject treated, I did not find that Hollinghurst made more of an issue of this than he did, say, of Nick's reliance on cocaine. However, in saying this, for a couple people in my seminar this did make for uncomfortable reading, not because of the fact that it was a gay sex scene that Hollinghurst was describing, but because they would have felt uncomfortable reading about any kind of sex scene in that much detail, gay or straight. In the first part of the novel there is a pretty graphic scene between Nick and Leo. It could be said that Hollinghurst included this purely to shock his readers; however I feel that this scene is important because it enables us to learn how much this event meant to Nick, which is important later on in the novel.
As the novel progresses the shocking nature of the sex scenes is replaced with shocking scenes detailing Nick's use of cocaine. These scenes are shocking not because they are in as much graphic detail as the earlier sex scenes, but because it is shocking to see how Nick's reliance on cocaine has grown and grown. In doing this Hollinghurst is showing us how Nick has changed; his obsessions have changed.
My review so far makes it sound like this book is all about drugs and sex, but this is really not the case. Politics play a strong part of this novel, detailing London high-class society in Thatcher's era. One famous scene from the book is one in which the PM comes to a party at the house of Toby's parents where Nick is living and Nick dances with her. This scene is well known because of how intricately drawn it is, it is totally believable.
The character of Nick in the novel is beautifully drawn. I love the way Hollinghurst wrote him, because he isn't afraid to make Nick make mistakes. Nick does things that you know he shouldn't, yet this just makes him more human and relatable. However, once you step out of the core circle of characters some of the people in my seminar felt that the secondary characters were a bit weak. It has been said that Hollinghurst has problems with drawing female characters; and this could partly be seen in the character of Catherine. In saying this though, his characters are still a lot more thought out than the average novelists'.
I loved this novel, I felt I could totally relate to Nick, even though he is of a different sex, class and lifestyle to me. I could completely empathise with him, and at the end of the novel your heart really goes out to him. The ending of the novel is really good, so good in fact that I'm not going to tell you even a tiny but about it so as not to ruin it. I felt that this novel was completely deserving of the Booker Prize, it contains good characters, writing and plot... what more could you need?