Summon up as much good will as you can before reading the Booker Prize-winning "The Line of Beauty." It is the bravura story of a young homosexual, Nick Guest, in Margaret Thatcher's England in the early 1980s, coming to terms with his identity and destiny. "The Line of Beauty" is a darker, more astringent "Brideshead Revisited."
The subject of the novel will be enough to discourage some readers because of their religious views. This novel is not for them. But for those who can tolerate sexual descriptions of what psychiatry before the '70s defined as aberrational behaviors -- without repulsion or schadenfreude -- Hollinghurst's writing has many rewards.
Nick Guest has taken a First from Oxford and is a summer guest in the home of the Feddens, before starting a doctorate on Henry James at University College London. Gerald Fedden is a Member of Parliament, a talented toady and, later, minister to the Prime Minister. His wife, Rachel, is well off in her own right. Nick has gone to school with the Fedden's son, Toby, and has made careful friendship with the daughter, Catherine, who is a cynical young thing with plenty of bad habits. Guest is a middle class naif, intellectually sharp and anxious to move into the upper class.
The stage is set for Guest's guilt, and he quickly acquiesces. Within the first 40 pages, Guest slavers over Toby's slim rower's physique and Mr. Fedden's backside as he takes wine bottles from the car, and has arranged an assignation for himself with Leo, a black clerk, whom he meets at a rough trade back-bar near Chepstow Castle on the rim of run-down London. Still to come is Nick's affair with a millionaire.
The thrill of homosexual conquest is the theme of the book. This passion, according to the author, is "lust enlarged and diffused by mystery." There's lots of chitchat by recent graduates about what happened at Oxford during a 21st birthday party for Toby, and amazement about "all this Toryness and money," but the hothouse element of the book is as old -- and current -- as Cole Porter's "Love for Sale."
Well, it's hardly love. It's lust. The gathering heat will make this book of bon mots a best seller and a movie. As one gay person remarks at the office of Wani Ouradi, a Lebanese millionaire whom Guest took up with at Oxford, "The worse they are, the more they see beauty in the other."
It takes 176 pages before the meaning of the novel's title is explained. Nick Guest opines in a post-coital reverie, as he lays in bed with Wani, on the beauty of the decorative furniture about them, in particular an ogee curve. "The ogee curve was pure expression, decorative not structural." Then Nick discusses the concept through the medium of Hogarth's line drawings: "The double curve was Hogarth's 'line of beauty,' the snakelike flicker of an instinct, of two compulsions held in one unfolding movement. He ran his hand down Wani's back. He didn't think Hogarth had illustrated this best example of it, the dip and swell-he had chosen harps and branches, bones rather than flesh. Really, it was time for a new 'Analysis of Beauty.'"
"Ogee" later becomes the name of the one-issue magazine of swank living, replete with adverts by Bulgari, Dior and BMW, published by Wani Ouradi, with Nicholas as consulting editor.
Of course, buggery has practical consequences in "The Line of Beauty." Leo, Nick's early partner, dies of AIDS. Wani also contracts the disease and is about to die. Nick gets tested, and we are left to wonder about his future. Gerald Fedden gets caught up in an insider dealing scandal as well as cheating on his wife. His own daughter Catherine spills the beans on dear old Dad who's having an affair with a woman -- and Nick's naughtiness as well. The newspapers catch hold of the scandal and run a subheading, "Gay Sex Link to Minister's House." Guest overstays his welcome and is made to depart.
Alan Hollinghurst summarizes what the monied classes desire toward the end of "The Line of Beauty": "they had all the rest, sex, money, power: it was everything they wanted."
Dishonesty is the animating principle that abides human activity in this novel. In this, it may not be far from the truth at the center of every capital city. Descriptions of the social tapestry include the "gracious scuttle" of vacant, wealthy women, as well as the "fantastic queenery" of heterosexual men fawning on Prime Minister Thatcher during her visit to Fedden's house. This last description requires some imagination.
"The Line of Beauty" is an interesting, geometric, amoral extrapolation of human activity -- grotesquely fascinating.
The Line of Beauty
By Alan Hollnghurst
Bloomsbury, 438 pages, $24.95
Michael D. Langan is a frequent book reviewer for the News and the Boston Globe.