If Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel The Line of Beauty wasn’t so well written and smart, it might feel like a prolonged episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. However, as it is both of these, the only thing the book shares with the television program is a dry but gaping eye into wealth and extravagance. Hollinghurst’s mingling characters are England’s elite: famous Tory ministers, stiff-lipped aristocrats, and glittery movie stars. Its action pivots around birthday parties, weddings, anniversaries, and vacations. You can imagine, then, the scale and pomp of these events: the rapid fire of champagne bottles popping, the syncopated rhythms of flashbulbs flashing, the quick-footed steps of servants dispensing hors devours. In the passing time between these decadent constellations stuff does happen, of course, but in short driving bursts, like midair leaps between lily pads. So, if you should open The Line of Beauty, prime yourself for a world of rich people at play.
The novel’s protagonist is Nick Guest, a young man charged, by circumstance and ambition, with figuring out the politics, conventions, and taboos of this culture. In 1983, shortly after the Tory takeover of British Parliament, Nick is a twenty-year-old Oxford graduate about to begin PhD work on Henry James. He lives at the home of an up-and-coming Tory politician named Gerald Fedden, the father of his close friend Toby, whom he met while at university.
Nick is gay and, although the Feddens tolerantly welcomed him into their home, Nick still "stiffened in apprehension about what might be carelessly said—some indirect insult to swallow, a joke to be weakly smiled at." If the taboo of his understated homosexuality makes Nick something of an outsider among the conservative politicos of London, he is distanced still further by his class. Nick’s father is an antiques dealer, a profession rich with cultural capital, but working-class by any other measure. Perhaps becomes of the atmosphere of his upbringing, Nick’s tastes are for the privileges of the wealthy, but unlike the people that surround him, he is all preference and no possession. If Hollinghurst, as a social critic, has one overriding critique of England in the 1980’s, he believes that the ethos of the time valued the opposite: the display of possession rather than its contemplation. The thoughtful and erudite—if still materialistic—Nick is viewed as smug among these people, even parasitic.
The chronology of the novel is partitioned into three sections. We begin in 1983, but time travel to 1986 and 1987. Hollinghurst conjures the thieving, salivating politics of the period, but the reader also gets to witness, in explicit detail, the sexual maturation of Nick. At Oxford, he pined for his straight best friend Toby. He also dodged relationships with gay men, fearing the "compromised thing that he himself would become." These are some of the first details revealed about Nick’s biography, and we know, as a result, that we’ve met the wet-behind-the-ears graduate at a time when his sexual history was still confined to the "inner theatre of sexual make-believe." That is, until he meets Leo. Leo, hungry and promiscuous, takes Nick’s virginity in a tryst enjoyed in the estate’s private gardens. They date for a time, but when the chronology jumps forward three years, Nick has become an experienced and confident lover and taken a new man.