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    Alan Hollinghurst's Booker Prize novel (2004) is set in the 1980's in Margaret Thatcher's England, with particular attention focused on a group of wealthy Tories in and around London. Nick Guest, a naive, gay, 20-year-old chap, recently graduated from Oxford, is invited by a straight friend, Toby Fedden, to stay in his home in Kensington Park Gardens while Nick is working on a PhD at a local university.

     The cover photo of The Line of Beauty offers the reader the first glimpse of Nick's story.  You are standing very close to an iron gate made with graceful arcs spaced widely apart.  Easy to look through the gate at the park-like entrance, yes, but why is your vision slightly blurred as you gaze at the community within?  You are unsure what to expect if you open the gate and walk through.  But you need a key to open the gate.  And if you are given that key, will you be given a key to understanding the lives that exist within?

    Nick hopes for the best and will come to view the Feddens as his second family, although wealth and social prominence make for a large divide with Nick's middle class upbringing in nearby Barwick.  Gerald Fedden is a successful businessman, handsome, slightly buffoonish, a Tory member of Parliament, dizzy over his political crush on Prime Minister Thatcher.  Rachel is old money, part Jewish, laconically ironic.  Toby, also just coming down from Oxford, is handsome, affable, a good guy with an amorphous personality, and surprised by his friendship with Nick.  Toby's sister, Catherine, two years younger, is blunt-mouthed, perhaps manic-depressive, and occasionally cuts into the skin of her forearms.

     Nick is given keys to the house and the gate, the gate becoming the symbol of privilege earned, or privilege denied.  Nick is unsure of his role in the household, especially when Toby moves with his girlfriend to a flat and begins to pursue a career in journalism.  Gerald and Rachel seem to like having Nick around, especially when they are away and think he can keep an eye on Catherine.  As Nick and Catherine form a friendship of sorts, Nick is amused by Catherine's antipathetical outbursts about Tory policies and Conservative confusion, often hypocritical, especially regarding sexual mores. She offers a salient remark when Gerald and Rachel are tut-tuting about an MP who, with a rent boy, is caught with his trousers down.  "Well, I don't see why he has to resign.  Who cares if he likes a blow job now and then?"

     Nick puts aside his school boy crush on Toby and with the aid of Catherine ventures to find his first sex partner (Nick is virginal in many ways) by answering a newspaper ad.  The note and the photograph he receives in the mail launch him into his first affair.  Leo, a West Indian, is 10 years older, a college graduate, working and living at home, and arrives at their pub meeting on a bicycle.  The chemistry blooms after a few drinks, but where can they go?  Nick finally takes Leo to the locked gate estate, and they slip into the recesses of the garden.

     Leo and Nick's affair recedes into the background as Hollinghurst brilliantly begins to satirize Gerald Fedden's friends and political allies, especially the attempts all of them make to get closer to Maggie Thatcher, "The Lady."  Time after time Thatcher is invited to various soirees, but it is only at Gerald and Rachel's 25th Anniversary celebration that she makes a "real life" appearance.  I once read that Margaret Thatcher had a full-blown, school girl crush on Ronald Reagan, and that she would often blush when he walked into the room.  In The Line of Beauty Gerald has the front door repainted from Green to blushing Royal Blue so that she will feel more welcome.

     Hollinghurst layers the satire with many subtexts, but continually sights Nick's affection for the sensuous beauty of the "ogee" -- the double curve of (S), and his passion for Henry James, the subject of Nick's doctoral studies.  I am not sure I understand the significance of the ogee as the line of beauty, but Nick's comments about it, in art and architecture and furniture, seem to represent a richness and quality that does not necessarily require an emotional stance.  Perhaps (S) just becomes a line, just as Nick is seduced by a line of cocaine.  And perhaps, since the novel is written in a Jamesian manner, those beautifully crafted sentences and those vignettes which seem to be short stories unto themselves are beautiful lines without consequence, without meaning in a world dominated by Tory thought where irony goes unnoticed.

     In some ways I think The Line of Beauty is brilliant, and yet, I think it rests too much on style.  The novel does not try to contrast the real life effects of the Tory policies, but focuses almost exclusively on the velvet bubble in which the Thatcherites live.  While reading, I even thought of the word, "turgid," once, which can mean "very complicated and difficult to understand," or "larger and fuller than normal because of swelling" (Merriam-Webster).  Perhaps a third meaning is most appropriate: "excessively embellished in style of language."  But I do understand how Hollinghurst thought a James-like style and story-line might be most suitable for this bunch of powerful, superficial twits.

     So, Nick loses Leo (you do not find out why until near the ending), finds Wani, the very rich son of a Lebanese immigrant who also adores "The Lady" and bankrolls his son and Nick in their efforts to create an art magazine to be titled "Ogee."  At the end of the novel, the first edition of "Ogee" rolls off the presses and Nick, the first to examine it, marvels at the beautiful, rich design, the articles about nothing, the advertisements with all of the goodies only the wealthy can afford.  It is the ultimate metaphor for this social satire.  Along the way, Nick has second-guessed himself about most of his behavior, beliefs and motivations.  The ending of The Line of Beauty suggests that this is a quasi-Bildungsroman story, as Nick begins to understand that his role in the Fedden household has not been what he believed.  I won't spoil the reasons why Nick is asked to leave and surrender his keys to the house and to the gate.  But where would the Conservatives be without a rollicking good scandal?  They are just so good at it.  

     Suffice it to say that Hollinghurst has skewered Maggie Thatcher and her cohorts with a sharply barbed stick, which is a straight line, of course, a line of beauty for us Progressives?

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Comment Preferences

  •  At work (5+ / 0-)

    until late morning.  Happy to respond to any comments then.

    R.I.P., Amy Winehouse

    by jarbyus on Tue Feb 11, 2014 at 05:05:19 AM PST

  •  Sounds like a good book... (5+ / 0-)

    I recently read forster's Maurice and enjoyed it.  Sounds like it touches on some of the same themes in an updated way...

    Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. - Gandalf the Grey

    by No Exit on Tue Feb 11, 2014 at 07:45:42 AM PST

    •  I think (3+ / 0-)

      the greatest similarity would be the continuing English concern about class and who can be accepted or denied entrance into a circle of friends.

      You would probably enjoy the movie version of "Maurice" which features a very young Hugh Grant in one of his first starring roles.  Thanks for commenting.

      R.I.P., Amy Winehouse

      by jarbyus on Tue Feb 11, 2014 at 08:27:00 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Loved the movie, too (5+ / 0-)

    There is a scene in which Maggie Thatcher appears at a party, immediately sticks out her hand for a cocktail, gets drunk, and dances with Nick.  Years later, I still laugh when I think of it.    Dan Stevens (of Downton Abbey fame) had the role of Nick.  Can't recommend the movie/miniseries enough, and the cinematography is lovely.

    •  Interesting comment (3+ / 0-)

      Especially since The Line of Beauty does not portray Thatcher as drunk during the anniversary party.  A little high, perhaps, to accept a dance invitation from the first person who asks her.  In the book, Thatcher is sitting on a sofa, and the besotted worshipers take turns sitting next to her for brief periods and retreating so that other "subjects" get their chance to talk to "The Lady."

      Nick, drunk and high on cocaine, slips over to the couch when he notices a vacancy, and unsure what to say to her, asks her to dance.  Nick is the interloper in the Fedden family and clearly does not know his place.  It is one of the scenes in the book that rang false to me.

      Thanks for your comment.  I will have to see the movie version.  

      R.I.P., Amy Winehouse

      by jarbyus on Tue Feb 11, 2014 at 08:38:52 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Very interesting review; thank you! n/t (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jarbyus, Brecht
  •  I'm happy to see you writing more book diaries; (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jarbyus, RiveroftheWest

    I read your diaries about James Baldwin and Andy Warhol, and enjoyed them both.

    I must confess, I skipped half of this diary: it appears to reveal a lot of the book's story, and the book is high on my TBR list. Of course, that is not a flaw in your diary, just a pet peeve of mine. Quarkstomper does nothing but reveal story, very skillfully (so I have to skip a quarter of his diaries). And my purism is unrealistic. If you look at Susan from 29's, bookgirl's, and my own diaries, you'll find spoilers in them - even though we each aim to avoid them entirely. Furthermore, you're aware of the issue: "I won't spoil the reasons why Nick is asked to leave and surrender his keys to the house and to the gate." So, I'm sorry if I have an uptight curmudgeon side to me.

    I enjoy your thoughts and experiences of literature. I look forward to reading more book diaries of yours in the future, whenever the spirit moves you.

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Wed Feb 12, 2014 at 10:13:22 AM PST

    •  Hey Brecht: (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Brecht, RiveroftheWest

      Thanks for stopping by.  I really do hope you will read The Line of Beauty soon.  If you do, and you do not include remarks about it in some of your essays, please kos mail me.  I was sure I had not given enough information about the story line, and worried about that.  But I certainly do understand what you mean about spoilers, and I am in agreement.  I think if you do read TLOB, you will see how little of the story line I have exposed.

      I love your "essays," because they are so much more than most of us write in our diaries!

      R.I.P., Amy Winehouse

      by jarbyus on Wed Feb 12, 2014 at 02:45:36 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I'm not sure when I'll read TLOB. I just wrote a (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        RiveroftheWest

        schedule of book diaries from here to October, and I'm trying to get my head down and get ahead of that schedule, so that I can get a series of Rock Diaries up and running too. But I promise that when I do read TLOB, I'll come back here and read your whole diary on it. And I'll tell you.

        My essays are all about stretching: stretching the conversation at R&BLers; stretching myself as a writer; stretching my mind, heart and soul. That sounds a little corny, even to me. But I'm very pleased to have found a part of DKos where I feel thoroughly at home and inspired to play, because all I put into the game comes back to me with interest. We are each other.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Wed Feb 12, 2014 at 03:01:37 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

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