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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