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Looks aren't everything
The Line of Beauty - Alan Hollinghurst
Member Name: ms_memory
The Line of Beauty - Alan Hollinghurst
Date: 03/04/10, updated on 05/04/10 (55 review reads)
Advantages: Beautiful descriptions
Disadvantages: Meandering plot, lack of strong characterisation
** 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! **
Summary: More style than substance