I first read this book two years ago for my Twentieth-Century British Lit. seminar with my dissertation director. It’s the novel that inspired my dissertation, so it holds a special place in my heart. It’s also one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.
Nick Guest is young, white, British, and gay in Margaret Thatcher’s England. He is a permanent houseguest at the Fedden home, the seeming picture of familial perfection. Gerald, the father, is an MP, and madly “in love” with Thatcher. Rachel, the mother, is a Jewish heiress, refined and reserved. Toby, the son, is a friend of Nick’s (as well as unsuspecting love object) from Oxford. Catherine, the daughter, is fiery and independent, though suffering from bipolar disorder. Nick is slowly coming to terms with his sexuality, though he must be discreet even in the place he calls “home.” The novel explores his quest for beauty and love, using his relationships with men, his pursuit of Henry James scholarship and aesthetics, and his cocaine addiction to find something meaningful about a decade known for its opulence and consumer-oriented lifestyles.
Hollinghurst is an incredibly skillful writer in the ways that he interacts with Henry James and Hogarth’s Line of Beauty (the ogee, pictured below, thanks to the Internet) to create multiplicities of intention or meaning within the novel.
The line of beauty could be a line of cocaine. It could be the ogee that is mentioned many times (and is even the name of Nick’s lover’s magazine). Or, it could be the serpentine paths which Nick’s life has taken, particularly once the AIDS crisis hits British society.
There are passages in this novel that I find particularly heartbreaking, because they resonate with the rich, full emotions of love, longing, and loss that can never be quite recovered from. Nick is a compelling character, and Hollinghurst is a masterful writer. Well worth your time, in my opinion.
Also, check out the mini-series. A very young Dan Stevens stars as Nick, and an even younger Hayley Atwell is a mesmerizing Catherine.