Last Updated September 5, 2023.
When Nick Guest begins to seek lovers who are gay, as he is, he must come to terms in a different way with the rampant prejudice against gay people. In his early 20s and just out of college, he has only recently come out and many people are not aware of it. Nick finds that other people see no need to hide their anti-gay sentiments. He has created for himself an imaginary sex life, which he sometimes tells his friends about, but is not quite ready to admit the lies to himself. At the other extreme, he is also reluctant to admit that he will now be included in the labels that others apply to gay people.
His confessed but entirely imaginary seductions took on—partly through the special effort required to invent them and repeat them consistently—the quality of real memories. He sometime had the sense, from a hint of reserve in people he was talking to, that while they didn’t believe him they saw he was beginning to believe himself. He had only come out fully in his last year at Oxford, and had used his new license mainly to flirt with straight boys . . . He wasn’t quite ready to accept the fact that if he was going to have a lover it wouldn’t be . . . any . . . drunk straight boy hopping the fence, it would be a gay lover—it would be that compromised thing that he himself would then become.
Nick, who is white, has set up his first date with Leo, a black man a few years older. After they chat at a bar for a while, they decide to continue with a sexual encounter. Nick is nervous but excited, and finds himself observing small, extraneous details such as the kind of clothes he wears, while he watches Leo unlock his bicycle.
He ought to tell Leo it was his first time; then he thought it might bore him or put him off. He gazed down at his strictly shaved nape, the back of a stranger’s head, which any minute now he would be allowed to touch. The label of Leo’s skimpy blue shirt was turned up and showed . . . Miss Selfridge. It was a little secret given away, a vanity exposed—Nick was light-headed, it was so funny and touching and sexy.
When he moves up from Oxford, where his father is an antiques dealer, to London, Nick goes to live in the home of his college classmate and friend, Toby Fedden, in the posh Notting Hill neighborhood. Gerald Fedden, Toby’s father, is a Tory (conservative) politician with an eye to becoming a cabinet minister. Gerald rarely proclaims his Tory politics while at home, as his family knows but does not necessarily agree with his positions. The author describes Gerald’s appearance as an indication of his secret life, which emerges later in the novel. In the kitchen of the family’s home,
the wall was a great hilarious page of family history, . . . [including] two wicked caricatures of Gerald, which he had made a point of buying from the cartoonists. When Gerald was in the kitchen, guests always found themselves contrasting him with his grinning, hawk-nosed image; the comparison was obviously to his advantage though it couldn’t help stirring the suspicion that under his handsome everyday mask this predatory goon might indeed be lurking.
When Toby turns 21, his mother’s brother hosts the birthday party at the family estate. Although Nick has known that Rachel’s family was quite wealthy, he is unprepared for the unmistakable material manifestations of this extreme privilege that are prominently displayed all over the house, such as in a drawing room where lunch is served.
Nick saw at once that the landscape over the fireplace was a Cézanne. It gave him a hilarious sense of his own social displacement. It was one of those moments that only the rich could create . . . .