Wednesday, July 27, 2016

THE LINE OF BEAUTY by Alan Hollinghurst

Nick Guest is a guest—a lodger, actually—in the home of Conservative Parliament member Gerald and his wife Rachel, along with their grown children, Toby and Catherine. Toby and Nick were friends at Oxford, and Toby has invited Nick to move in with his family. Nick’s father is an antiques dealer, and Nick’s previous exposure to this level of posh gentility was limited to accompanying his father on clock-winding visits. It’s the late 1980s, and Nick is gay, so that the AIDs epidemic is lurking ominously on the horizon. Nick is an enigma, knowing that he does not quite fit in socially, but at the same time he somehow sees his host family members as friends. They, however, seem to view him more as a charity case who can help keep an eye on Catherine, who is bipolar. When she’s off her meds, she poses a threat to herself at least and may possibly be destructive in other ways. Nick is dangerous, too, in an entirely different way, blatantly snorting cocaine, right under the noses of the family, and meeting lovers in the garden. I couldn’t believe he would take his living situation for granted to the point that he would risk sullying Gerald’s political career. He overestimates his standing in the family, and in the end he realizes that his view of the family is seriously distorted. Their snobbish hypocrisy is obvious to the reader but not to Nick. There’s a reason his very rich friend Wani, short for Antoine, wants to keep their affair under wraps, and it’s not just for the sake of his Lebanese parents. Certainly, the appeal of this novel lies in its satirical treatment of upper-crusty manners, including a scene where high-as-a-kite Nick dances with Prime Minister Thatcher to a Rolling Stones tune. However, as a reader, you’ll be acutely aware that almost all of the male characters are gay, so that this novel’s world seems a little skewed in more ways than one. Hollinghurst’s sublime prose kept me interested in Nick’s fate, as I held onto the hope that he would stop making so many egregious errors in judgment before his world toppled around him.

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