Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Guest at the Party (Books - The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst)

While everyone else is working on the new Booker longlist, I'm reading an old winner, Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty. Starting in London in 1983, Nick Guest has just graduated with a first from Oxford. He is the classmate of Toby Feddens, son of a conservative member of Parliament, and without much money to spare, rents a garret room in the Feddens' house. Nick's father deals in antiques, but while he has had a chance to learn about and develop a taste for beautiful things, he has grown up decidedly middle class. Nick is also discovering his sexuality, and is finding that it is decidedly homosexual, with a particular attraction for a young black man named Leo. It is easy to see why Hollinghurst has given Nick the surname of Guest - he seems a young man with a foot in four counties but a home in none. He is barely out of the closet, admires the greater experience of Leo but is not yet able to live openly himself, remember this is the year when AIDS first came to general public awareness. He loves the parties given in great houses, the witty conversation, elegant food, and freely flowing drugs. Thatcher's England was an era of indulgence for those with the money to do so, and while Nick is not himself a man of means, he has managed to attach himself to a family that is very well provided for. It is in this setting that he comes of age - attempting to ingratiate himself to everyone as he figures out who he is and what he values most.

I too graduated from college in the early 80s. The Tylenol murders, liposuction, John Belushi's overdose, the breakup of Ma Bell, Charles & Di, Haley's comet, crack cocaine, the discovery of the AIDS virus. I was coming of age in Reagan's America rather than Thatcher's England, but I recognize that era in which laws were meant to provide people in certain circles and corporations of certain means the maximum of permissiveness on the one hand, while on the other the same conservatives used their power to clamp down on what they saw as overly indulgent social mores, particularly those less familiar or less comfortable for them. At the book's start, Nick is still innocent to the duplicity that surrounds him. As this is a coming of age story, I expect that will change. This seems a modern-day Jamesian novel, with an eye for details of class and society, and prose that rolls easily as the hills of the English countryside. I was drawn 100 pages in before I even looked up from reading.

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