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Last Updated on August 15, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 673

The Line of Beauty is divided into three parts that take place over the course of three years in the life of Nick Guest, a gay college student living through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

Part one, titled “The Love Chord,” takes place in the summer of 1983, when...

(The entire section contains 2653 words.)

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The Line of Beauty is divided into three parts that take place over the course of three years in the life of Nick Guest, a gay college student living through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

Part one, titled “The Love Chord,” takes place in the summer of 1983, when Nick moves in to the Fedden home. Nick has a secret crush on his Oxford classmate Toby Fedden, and Toby’s parents allow Nick to stay at their home while they are on holiday in France. Nick helps Toby’s younger sister, Cat, cope with a mental health crisis, and as a result, she becomes attached to Nick. Because of this, the Feddens allow Nick to live in their home indefinitely. During this time, Nick begins a sexual relationship with Leo Charles, a slightly older black man from Willesden. Leo’s mother is religious, and the Feddens prefer Nick doesn’t acknowledge his sexuality in their presence. Because of this, the two lovers have rendezvous in public spaces. At the end of the section, Nick takes Leo to meet his much older former lover, an antiques shop owner named Pete who has health issues.

Part two is called “To Whom Do You Beautifully Belong?” It is now 1986, and Nick still lives in the Fedden home. He has moved on to a secret affair with an Oxford classmate named Wani Ouradi, who has a female fiancée in order to satisfy his rich Lebanese family. Nick is working on his doctorate, which is focused on the famed American expatriate author Henry James. However, Nick expends most of his energy having sex and experimenting with drugs alongside Wani, who gives Nick expensive gifts. Wani lies to his family and friends about spending time with Nick, whom Wani says is helping him write a script and develop a magazine. Cat, who has since been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, knows about Nick and Wani’s romantic relationship, and she warns him to be careful, pointing out that her godfather died from AIDS-related complications. Meanwhile, Nick discovers that Gerald Fedden—Toby and Cat’s father—is having an extramarital affair with his assistant. At the end of the section, Nick attends the twenty-fifth anniversary party for Gerald and Rachel Fedden; one of the guests is Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Nick, who is under the influence of drugs at the party, asks Thatcher to dance with him, which she accepts.

“The End of the Street” begins on Election Day the following year as Nick decides not to vote for Gerald Fedden. At the same time, Leo’s sister pays Nick a visit to let him know that his former lover died of AIDS just a few weeks prior. In shock, Nick goes home to sit with Cat and watch the election results. Later, Nick has an important meeting with two potential investors in his film project, but Wani does not arrive on time, because he is slowly dying from AIDS. Wani lets Nick know that shortly, the press will report on a scandal over Gerald Fedden’s finances. By the time Nick arrives at the Feddens’, the scandal has already broken, and Cat is manic. Nick drives Cat across town to discover Gerald with his assistant, causing Cat to have a near breakdown. Rachel blames Nick for letting Cat dictate his actions instead of taking care of her properly. The press then exposes Nick’s relationship with Wani in connection to the Feddens, since Nick is their longtime boarder. The Feddens use Nick’s homosexuality to distract the public from the misappropriated funds scandal, and Nick finally moves out.

In the final moments of the book, Nick visits the vacant Fedden home for the last time while the family is at a wedding. Nick runs into Gerald’s assistant, who insists she will continue the affair with her boss. Nick finally gets to see the first and last issue of the magazine he and Wani developed together, and he thinks about the HIV test he will take the next day.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1980

With its title drawn from William Hogarth's famous treatise The Analysis of Beauty (1753), Alan Hollinghurst's novel The Line of Beauty is a meditative set of variations on style: literary, personal, political, sexual, cultural, artistic, architectural. Although it may or may not be the author's best novel, The Line of Beauty is certainly his most ambitious and something of a capstone. It completes the loosely connected quartet of novels—with The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), The Folding Star (1994), and The Spell (1998)—that examine gay identity in the “ghastly” decade of the 1980's. It is easy now to forget the impact that The Swimming-Pool Library had and how influential its handling of gay life has been. As Hollinghurst has explained,

From the start I’ve tried to write books which began from a presumption of the gayness of the narrative position. To write about gay life from a gay perspective unapologetically and as naturally as most novels are written from a heterosexual position. When I started writing, that seemed a rather urgent and interesting thing to do. It hadn’t really been done.

Now it has, and yet, the more some things change, the more they remain the same. No sooner did Hollinghurst win the Booker Prize than the British tabloids began describing The Line of Beauty as a gay novel, even a gay sex novel (perhaps even part of a gay conspiracy, as the chairperson of the judges, Chris Smith, former minister of media, culture, and sport, was also Britain's first openly gay cabinet member). Hollinghurst does not object to being thought of as a gay novelist:

I only chafe at the “gay writer” tag if it's thought to be what is most or only interesting about what I’m writing. I want it to be part of the foundation of the books, which are actually about all sorts of other things as well—history, class, culture. There's all sorts of stuff going on. It's not just, as you would think if you read the headlines in the newspapers, about gay sex.

Divided into three parts and framed by two British elections (1983 and 1987), The Line of Beautytells a more or less straightforward story of its protagonist's rise and fall against the backdrop of the middle years of Margaret Thatcher's government. It is a telling that artfully combinesBildungsroman, love story, comedy of manners, satire, lyricism, and elegy and that manages to be at once accessible and finely written, scathingly funny and emotionally affecting, at times almost unbearably so. It follows the sinuous double curve, “the line of beauty,” the ogee, that Hogarth saw in a chair leg (among other places) and the novel's central character finds more sensuously in a lover's hip.

The novel also follows the author's own life to a degree: “I was a gay, middle-class only child from the provinces, fairly innocent of real life, with a precocious knowledge of music, literature and architecture,” like his aptly, allegorically named protagonist, Nick Guest, fresh from Oxford, a bit snobbish, arriving in London in the early 1980's, in awe of “the romance of London, the sense of expectation and possibility.” The novel's epigraph, from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), suggests Hollinghurst's playfully skeptical as well as self-critical approach to Nick's adventures in the wonderland of Thatcher's London. The novel is loaded with literary (and other cultural) allusions, as befits its well-read (and at times culturally snobbish) protagonist. Henry James's The Spoils of Poynton (1897) looms large, as does the 1985 Merchant-Ivory film adaptation of E. M. Forster's A Room with a View (1908); Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1945); Oscar Wilde's plays, Lady Windemere's Fan (1892) in particular, with more than a touch of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891); Hogarth's A Harlot's Progress (1732) and A Rake's Progress (1735); and, least directly but most evocatively, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925), about another Nick, Nick Carraway.

“What would Henry James have made of us?” a minor character asks. James would have made something similar to what Hollinghurst has, but not quite the same thing, and not just because it is impossible to imagine James being so direct in his treatment of sex (not that The Line of Beauty is nearly as sexually graphic as some reviewers have claimed) or of using juxtaposition quite the way Hollinghurst does: “[Nick] was reading Henry James's memoir of his childhood, A Small Boy and Others, and feeling crazily horny, after three days without as much as a peck from Wani. It was a hopeless combination.”

By making Nick the novel's focal character but not its narrator, Hollinghurst allows the reader to know Nick intimately yet ironically. He arrives in London to begin doctoral studies, writing a dissertation on the styles of Joseph Conrad, George Meredith, and Henry James. More important, he arrives as a guest, a country mouse, in the family home of his city cousin, or more specifically his college roommate, Toby Fedden, the discrete object of Nick's obscure, closeted desire the previous three years. As the novel opens, Nick is alone in the house in recently gentrified Notting Hill with Toby's sister Catherine, whose latest psychological crisis prevents Nick from keeping a first date with Leo Charles, a black clerk, whom he met through a personal ad. (Tending to Catherine also keeps him from having his first real, as opposed to fantasized, sex).

Thus, in the first pages, the reader is introduced not just to Nick and the house but also to the novel's overall rhythm of expectation and delay. The reader is also introduced to Nick's divided nature: his innocence and ignorance on one hand, his desires on the other; his willingness to take risks coupled with a fearful hesitancy and “provincial squeamishness” (as the other Nick says of himself in Fitzgerald's novel). The reader is also introduced, a few pages later, to his two kinds of “arse licking,” as Leo says after they finally do meet and have sex, in the private gardens shared by the Feddens and their neighbors.

Nick's cultural and social pretensions invite the reader's scorn—or would, were it not for Nick's genuine concern for Catherine and equally genuine appreciation for art, literature, and music. Similarly, his sexual fumblings would make him seem somewhat comical were it not for the internalized doubts that act, for a time, as a brake on his desire. It is this in-betweenness that gives Nick, and Hollinghurst's comedy of manners, a depth of insight and feeling as Nick struggles to be what he is and to prove himself in various ways, socially and sexually above all.

The conflict is especially evident later in the novel, when Nick, long after Leo has dumped him, wants to show off his rich Lebanese lover, Wani Ouradi, and wants to show off for him. Nick may be, as Leo says, a preppy twit, but he is not just a preppy twit. The novel mirrors this ambivalence in its structure and texture, mixing satire and lyricism, the empty dialogue of its mainly well-heeled characters (caricatures hoist on their own petards) and passages of introspection and sudden feeling.

What attracts Nick to Wani is his wealth, and Hollinghurst is (as one of his characters says of Anthony Trollope) “very good on money.” That is, he is very good at depicting how unworthy the Feddens and others are of the fine things they so conspicuously consume. Toby and Catherine's father, Gerald Fedden, is one of the one hundred and one new Tory members of Parliament elected in 1983. Gerald has plenty of money and power and, of course, wants much more of both, while possessing no appreciation for his things or for anyone around him, including his psychologically fragile daughter. Specifically he wants a cabinet post. He lusts politically, if not sexually, for Thatcher (who, never named in the novel, is always “the PM”) Gerald's triumph comes when she plays the role of honored, or at least coveted, guest at Gerald and Rachel's twenty-fifth anniversary party. Just as he lusts after the power Thatcher can provide, he loathes Barwick, the provincial town he represents in Parliament.

Nick, too, loathes Barwick, because it is where he grew up, the only child of the discretely homophobic Don and Dot Guest. Nick feels no nostalgia for his hometown or, for that matter, for his home, which was never quite a haven in a heartless world and was always subject, in its small-time way, to Thatcher's economic policies, avant la lettre: Don, an antiques dealer, invariably sold the furnishings whenever he found a buyer. Nick returns home driving the little Mazda that Wani paid for, the sign of his success as well of his status as Wani's “pretty boy.” Nick's willingness to sell himself in this more or less discreet way is a bit like Wani's obsession with pornography: less a personal failing than a sign of the grossly commercial, pornographic times ruled by the arch dominatrix, the PM.

While neither Gerald (nicknamed the Banger) nor the PM have any redeeming features, coke-snorting Wani does: not his bedding Nick, not his giving Nick a job or allowing Nick to name both the film company and the magazine Ogee, not the car, and certainly not the five thousand pound check, which effectively puts Nick on notice and in his place. What redeems the dying Wani is his willingness to care for Nick by giving him a commercial building, the income from which should be enough for Nick to live on the rest of his life.

Like almost everything else in The Line of Beauty, this act of generous affection turns out to be as much curse as blessing. Once the old buildings on this Clerkenwell corner had been razed,

Baalbek House, named by Wani as if he had written a poem, started to go up. Nick cast about but really he’d never seen a more meretricious design than that of Baalbek House. His own ideas were discounted with the grunting chuckle of someone wedded to another vision of success and defiantly following cheaper advice. And now this monster Lego house, with its mirror windows and maroon marble cladding, was to be Nick's for life.

Baalbek House goes up, much of everything else comes down, and the novel ends in a flurry of deaths (especially AIDS deaths) and precipitous declines (including the financial markets’ and, not long after, Thatcher's). After narrowly winning reelection, Gerald finds himself embroiled in three scandals: one financial and the other two sexual, one with his assistant and the other involving Nick and Wani: “Gay Sex Link to Minister's House: Peer's Playboy Son Has AIDS.” The first issue of Ogee, with his name on the masthead amid the glossy ads “for Bulgari, Dior, BMW, astounding godparents to Nick and Wani's coke-child,” offer fleeting confirmation of Nick's place in the world, but the first issue is also the last.

The end comes just pages later, when Nick reluctantly departs the Feddens’ home, where he was never quite the guest, or the family member, he believed himself to be—always instead something of an interloper or renter or paid retainer. However, it is not bitterness Nick feels and not even regret but Gatsby-like wonder, “as he looked in bewilderment at number 24, the final house with its regalia of stucco swags and bows. It wasn’t just this street corner but the fact of a street corner at all that seemed, in the light of the moment, so beautiful.” It is a pity that there is no one but the reader to pay Nick Guest the compliment that Nick Carraway pays Jay Gatsby: “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

Review Sources

Booklist 101, no. 4 (October 15, 2004): 389.

The Christian Science Monitor, October 26, 2004, p. 14.

Entertainment Weekly, October 22, 2004, p. 98.

Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 16 (August 15, 2004): 765.

London Review of Books 26, no. 9 (May 6, 2004): 25.

The New Republic 231, no. 24 (December 13, 2004): 47.

The New York Times, November 23, 2004, p. E1.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (October 31, 2004): 19.

Publishers Weekly 251 (September 20, 2004): 46.

San Francisco Chronicle, October 23, 2004, p. E1.

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