I was going to refer to Nick, the protagonist of The Line of Beauty, as unambitious. But when I think about it, it’s just that his ambitions are not professional. They are romantic, aesthetic, and social. Another skill he has is taking in the pleasure of the moment, and even turning the moment in his favour. He’s quite an innocent when we first meet him, fresh out of Oxford and living with the Feddens in Notting Hill, swept-up and trusting in their world. He was at school with Toby and harbours a secret crush on him, but he becomes close to Toby’s sister Catherine – who suffers from manias and depression. Gerald is the head of the house, a Tory MP, and Rachael is his wife. Nick is a virgin, and his first giddy encounters with Leo, an older, BMX-riding black guy, reveal some of the power-plays and prejudices within the conservative Fedden family, and hint at Nick’s possibly odd place within them.
But he stays, for many years. To tell more of the plot would be to rob you of the pleasure of its unfolding. The novel is so rich, from Nick’s observations of where good taste turns to vulgarity (borrowed partly from Henry James), to the close context of 1980s Thatcherism (the PM even makes an appearance) and the many, oft ambiguous and intriguing interplays between the characters. This small world is seen through an aesthete’s eye – the men, architecture, food, cocaine, alcohol, antiques, gardens, music and staircases are all vivid, and significant.
Of course, Nick’s place in the bosom of the family is an oddity and the third act of The Line of Beauty is dramatic and dark. The extent of Nick’s innocence and trust, his hope and wonder, and his ignorance, are all revealed. But it is all the characters who eventually suffer. I feel I’d normally get annoyed at a character who is so idle and indulgent, but Nick’s pursuit of pleasure, acceptance and beauty is compelling. The themes reminded me a little of Michael Cunningham‘s. Though Hollinghurst and Cunningham write quite differently, their books would make good companions. Hollinghurst is an artful writer. His sentences are immaculate. You almost feel spoilt, reading it, as though you were drinking the finest scotch whisky.
Here’s an example of a small, insightful segment, on the possibility of getting a crush:
‘He wondered if he could have a crush on this waiter too – it only needed a couple of sightings, the current mood of frustration, and a single half-conscious decision, and then the boy’s shape would be stamped on his mind and make his pulse race whenever he appeared.’
I enjoyed this Man Booker Prize-winner more than The Swimming-Pool Library (though that was excellent) simply because it had more contrasts, and more scope. I’m now also reading The Stranger’s Child – his latest – which I was very happy to see was (at least partly) set in the 1910s, as I’ve recently been enjoying some Downton Abbey.