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Author: Allan Hollinghurst
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (2005)
Setting: The story is set in the 1980s in Britain, during the period when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, which was also the time when the AIDS epidemic began.
Main Characters: Nick, Leo, Wani, Toby, Catherine, Gerald
Summary: The story revolves around Nick, a homosexual Oxford graduate who lives with his college mate’s (Toby) family in Kensington Park and Toby’s father is Gerald Fedden, a Member of Parliament. Nick has a crush on Toby but never expressed it because Toby is heterosexual. Toby’s sister, Catherine, is the only person in the household who knows of Nick’s sexual preferences and they are each other’s confidants. She is also neurotic and has a tendency to inflict harm upon herself but Nick is often able to manage her emotions better than anyone in her family.
Nick’s relationships are documented in a manner that is unglamorous and covert because of the hostility and rejection of homosexuals in society at that point of time. As Toby’s family belongs to the elites, he struggles to find his place among them especially during special events and dinner parties. He discovers that even as he is able to strike conversations with fellow guests at such events, somehow a part of him still feels out of place, like he doesn’t really belong there.
Nick eventually gets involved with drugs and moves on from Leo to Wani, a rich Lebanese who is engaged to a lady from a wealthy family. Nick works for Wani in his start-up company, Ogee, but behind it all, both of them regularly sniff cocaine to satisfy their “high” and “sexual desires” – a lifestyle that is hidden from the public eye. Due to Wani’s promiscuous nature, he eventually contracts AIDS and Nick finds out years later that Leo died from the disease too. The cat is let out of the bag at the end of the story – Gerald learns of Nick’s lifestyle and kicks him out of his household. At this point, Nick’s first edition of the Ogee magazine is published – his pet project, and the story ends with him contracting the disease as well.
Review: As an adult book, The Line of Beauty integrates themes of homosexuality, oppression and friendship, which are linked to the socio-political climate in Britain during that period. Due to the sexually explicit descriptions in the book, I would assign a reading age of 21 and above.
Homosexuality is dealt with heavily in this book and the disapproval of this group of minority in society is evident. In the first few chapters of the book, a conversation about Hector Maltby, a junior minister in the Foreign Office being homosexual is brought up and “immediately, Nick felt the air in the room begin to tingle, as if at the onset of an allergic reaction”. Catherine tries to reason why Hector has to resign from his position as a minister and Gerald asserts that “there was really no alternative”. This shows that gay ministers were not accepted by the society-at-large and homosexuality was a “taboo” topic among the elites in society.
AIDS is first introduced in the book in the character of Pete, Leo’s ex-lover. Nick learns of his illness when Leo brings him to visit Pete. Nick faces the topic again when Gerald’s family learns of the death of Pat Grayson, a TV actor, and “there was a communal effort by the rest of the family to veil the matter”. Rachel lies that he died of pneumonia, but Catherine reveals the truth: “Mum, for Christ’s sake! He had AIDS!” This shows that homosexuality and AIDS were understood to be related because of “anonymous sex” with other gay partners, and there is an overt effort to avoid the topic altogether. However, in reality, even heterosexuals can contract the disease if they do not practise safe sex. Towards the end of the book, after Gerald finds out about Nick’s sexuality, he questions Nick: “Didn’t it strike you as rather odd, a bit queer, attaching yourself to a family like this?” This shows that Gerald feels uncomfortable knowing that Nick is gay and instructs him to leave his house – a representation of the ultimate disapproval of Nick as a twenty-something-gay living in Britain.
Living amongst the elites in society, Nick often feels out of place, “restless and forgotten, peripheral to an event which, he remembered, had once been thought of as his party too. His loneliness bewildered him for a minute, in the bleak perspective of the bachelor’s corridor: a sense close to panic that he didn’t belong in this house with these people”. This is a representation of the theme of oppression through Nick’s character on two levels: (1) being unable to publicly embrace his sexuality or talk about his partners and (2) being unable to fit in with the elites in society because he is not a “Fedden” and he has to behave in a certain way whenever he is around them. This oppression is finally lifted when he is kicked out of Gerald’s house, almost like a blessing in disguise. He no longer has to put on a disguise and he can finally live for himself, for who he really is.
The theme of oppression is also portrayed through Nick and Catherine’s friendship. Amidst the loneliness that Nick faces in the Fedden household, his friendship with Catherine is genuine and pure. At the beginning of the story, Catherine goes through a manic episode when her parents are away and Nick saves her in the nick of time to prevent her from hurting herself any further. He tells her, “you know you can always tell me” – a sign of being there for her whenever she needs someone. However, she explains that the whole world is “totally negative. You can’t survive in it. It’s like being in Mars or something.” This is the first time we see Catherine’s character being out-of-reach and unstable. As the odd-ball in her family, she doesn’t see the point of being the daughter of someone notable in society and being rich when one can lead a simple life on a modest income. She feels that there is too much pretension going on in her family, which explains why she defends Pat’s death because she believes that she’s no need to conceal any part of a person’s life – “surely the least we can do is tell the truth about him?” is the question she poses to her family before leaving them.
The book offered insights on what it means to be a minority that is not accepted by society and more importantly, the lives of the gay and straight, rich and poor, in Britain during the 1980s. The combination of drugs and sex in this story is precisely the line of beauty that Allan Hollinghurst writes about. Drugs and sex make up the most part of Nick’s life, as his character does not actually come to terms with the more intangible personality traits that he should be looking for in a partner. Rather than focusing on leading a “proper” lifestyle, he “loved the etiquette of the thing, the chopping with a credit card, the passing of the rolled note, the procedure courteous and dry, all done with money” and “he saw a beauty in the slyness” of sneaking around having sex with Wani behind closed doors at cocktail events, aptly describing the thrill he indulged in with respect to his secret lifestyle.
As much as I enjoyed the plot, the writing could have been less crude in my opinion. Some of the sexual scenes were very explicit and distastefully written such as “Tristao bent to snort his line, and Wani felt his cock and Nick felt his arse” or “on both knees and pulled his cock into his mouth” – I think these descriptions could have been written in a more refined style. Therefore, while I credit the author for having written a well-thought-through plot line, I discredit him for the lack of elegance in his writing. (Rating: 3 out of 5 stars)