Divided into three sections, The Line of Beauty, winner of the 2004 Booker Prize, is a beautifully written but pompous novel of privilege, hypocrisy, loneliness and belonging.
Having recently graduated from Oxford, the good looking, middle class gay Nick Guest moves into the large, rambling Notting Hill home of the Feddens. Having befriended (and idolised) Toby Fedden at Oxford, Nick finds himself as a post-graduate at University College London and a lodger in the home of the new, highly ambitious MP, Gerald Fedden and his wife, Rachel, a wealthy heiress.
It’s 1983, the Tories under Margaret Thatcher have been returned to power with an increased majority and a new breed of politician sits in Parliament – ruthless and driven with the financial acumen of a banker or investor. Thrilling to Nick, Gerald Fedden epitomises this new approach.
But in spite of having the freedom of their home, Nick never really belongs. Toby is rarely there and when he is, somewhat distant. Nick finds himself drawn more and more to the troubled younger sister, Catherine (Cat), who is bipolar. It is to her he talks of his (fictional) Oxford sexual proclivities. It is to her he talks of his (factual) adventures with Leo, a man he meets through a Lonely Hearts advert. But Nick never feels confident or secure enough to introduce Leo (who is a few years older and black) to the Feddens and their home.
Part two of The Line of Beauty moves us forward three smug years. Nick remains in the Notting Hill home, but Leo is now history. Instead, he has taken up with the incredibly wealthy Wani Ouradi, an Oxford contemporary and the son of a rich Lebanese businessman. Ostensibly employed by Wani as consulting editor and artistic advisor to his company, 1986 is one of closeted excess – drugs, sex, alcohol: hedonistic indulgence taken to its limits.
The bubble bursts in part three. Just a year later and Wani is dying from AIDS. Nick has also discovered Leo died a few months earlier. A media scandal caused by the discovery of an affair between Gerald and Penny, his parliamentary secretary, and the link between him and Wani results in Nick being forced to move out of the Notting Hill house.
It’s a masterful book – one of many from Hollinghurst. His prose is beautiful. But it is also annoying – a florid, overtly descriptive style that can, at times, take forever to get to the point. The result is an overlong commentary of the indulgences and materialism of 1980s Thatcherite Britain.
But The Line of Beauty is no agit-prop novel or deep political analysis. That’s not Hollinghurst’s style. Instead, through surface glamour and an aura of Brideshead Revisited revisited, The Line of Beauty is the patina that covers the self-serving hypocrisy of privilege and Thatcherism.
Whether it be a line of cocaine, the double ‘S’ of the ogee curve or the curve of a man’s lower back, The Line of Beauty captures a time and place. From a naïve, relatively privileged Oxford graduate, Nick becomes someone who is at least aware of his surrounds. The stark reality for him, gay and poor amidst the materialistic and generally homophobic upper echelons of London society, is not promising. And punctuated throughout is the emerging threat of AIDS.