Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty Is Pure Tedium [Book Review]

Line Of Beauty

What a disappointment The Line of Beauty turned out to be.

This winner of the 2004 Booker Prize, was so dull at times that I was tempted to abandon it in preference for the ingredients panel of a cereal packet.

It’s meant to be a novel reflecting on the nature of Britain in the 1980s, the era of Margaret Thatcher and a time of economic euphoria and ultra confidence among the privileged governing classes. This is also the decade that saw  the emergence of the Aids/HIV crisis.

Alan Hollinghurst tackles both topics via the story of Nick Guest, a young homosexual who comes from a middle class background but has mingled with the great and the good during his time at Oxford university.

He’s invited by his friend Toby, the son of  a rising Tory MP (Gerald Fedden) to move into their upmarket family house as a lodger while he undertakes his postgraduate research on Henry James. His presence in the house gives Nick a chance to mingle with aristocrats and politicians, to party in castles, holiday in French chateaux and even to dance with the Prime Minister.

Transfixed By Beauty

Nick is a charmer, an aesthete who is entranced by beauty in all its forms. A piece of furniture, a Gauguin painting; the shape of a man’s buttocks and especially the double “S” shape of the ogee, the  double curve cited by Hogarth as the “line of beauty”. Where the Feddens see art as a commodity, Nick appreciates beauty for its own sake.

Over the course of the novel, we see the changing nature of his relationship with the Feddens. But more fundamentally we also witness the development of Nick’s sexuality. The Feddens accept his sexuality if only to the extent of never mentioning it but when it threatens their privileged lives and Gerald’s prospects of high office, they turn on him. The tolerated lodger becomes persona non grata.

Hypocrisy is just one of the themes explored in The Line of Beauty.  The book also considers the relationship between politics and homosexuality, the bubble world of the the Conservatives in the 1980s (summed up by one civil servant “The economy’s in ruins, no one’s got a job, and we just don’t care, it’s bliss.”) and, of course, the nature of beauty.

Beauty is Boring

Overall I found this to be a remarkably dull book. Reading is a chore.

The first section – which takes place in 1983 when Nick is in the first few months of his stay at the Feddens’ Knightsbridge home – is painfully slow. He takes a lover for the first time, meeting him in secret in public parks and quiet streets.

Part 2 is an improvement. We now move forward to 1986 when Nick is in a relationship with Wani Ouradi, the wealthy son of a Lebanese businessman, with whom he enters the world of drugs and promiscuity.

Part 3 takes place just one year later when his lover has been diagnosed as HIV positive and deteriorating rapidly and the Feddens world is about to disintegrate.

The drama doesn’t materialise in any meaningful way until more than halfway through that second part. Until then we’re subjected to a series of eventful country-house parties and family gatherings where Nick is still very much the outsider (his surname – Guest – is a clue to his real status). They’re considerably more sedate than his other social interactions which involve sex and drugs.

Too Much Of A Good Thing

The problem here is that the interest in a decadent lifestyle declined for me as rapidly as my appetite for a second ice-cream.

Sex is seldom far from Nick’s mind.  He only has to see a man in a street and he immediately imagines him as a sexual partner.  But how many times do we need to know this? How many times do we need to read a passage describing furtive coke-snorting and sexual encounters?  The repetitive nature of this book made it hard to enjoy.

One critic in The Independent thought The Line of Beauty was “fabulous” and Hollinghurt’s recreation of a “bigoted, nepotistic, racist, callous and mean-spirited epoch” was “brilliant”.  Not for the first time I find myself considerably at odds with critics and with the judges of the Booker Prize.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on September 25, 2018, in Book Reviews, Man Booker Prize and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 34 Comments.

  1. I warned you! Haahaa, to be fair though Hollinghurst does write some better novels, but even as a gay man reading them they are WAY too navel gazing even for me. He drives me insane with too many details and thoughts. It’s like he wants to write his version of Isherwood’s A Single Man, but doesn’t have the mastery or conciseness.

    • You did indeed Geoff but I had to give it a go since its on the Booker list. But it was almost a did not finish. Navel gazing it certainly was guilty of. Even if he has written better books I don’t feel enthused enough to try them

  2. oh wow, you first paragraph is quite telling!!!

  3. I tried it back in 2005 and gave up halfway through!

  4. How does one feel okay about putting the words racist/bigot next to the words fabulous/brilliant? I can imagine the book is terribly slow if the character loves beauty; you typically get all those dragging descriptions, feelings, and reactions to the beautiful thing.

  5. I think I quite liked this one but found it hard going at the same time. I certainly wasn’t overwhelmed with love for it. Saying that it was years ago and can’t remember much about it. Probably a bit of a slow read. I much preferred the only other Hollinghurst I have read The Stranger’s Child

  6. I read your blog to know I am not alone!

  7. I’ve had this in my TBR stack for years and never felt particularly drawn to it… sounded good in theory (on the blurb) but your review confirms my suspicions.

    • I know some bloggers I follow really enjoyed it but for me life is way too short to spend time with a boring book. I know you have plenty of other options awaiting you so go for those instead

  8. I’ve got another book of his which was compared to Iris Murdoch (can I remember which one? No, I cannot) and I’ve been a bit worried, but I have worse on the TBR so we’ll see. I’ve never fancied this one somehow.

    • Hm, I know that my reaction is based on just one novel but I am really not sure how that comparison could have been made. I also saw some comments that compared parts of Line of Beauty to he Great Gatsby which I thought was a real stretch

  9. Oh good! I’ll never have to trouble my TBR with this one then! Good to know I’m not alone in finding constant descriptions of sex, drugs and even rock’n’roll get a bit wearing after a bit…

  10. Couldn’t agree with you more. I gave it a reluctant three stars at Goodreads but it’s a forgettable novel except for one thing… books about homosexual love were rare in those days so it was a brave move by the Booker judges.
    The trouble is, homosexual love is just as boring IMO to read about as heterosexual love. I don’t think we should be coy about it, but I am not interested in every heaving breath!

    • If it had been a bloke lusting after ever female he saw or vice versa, then it still would have been tedious. The homosexual aspect didn’t change anything in that respect for me. I hope the judges didn’t chose this book just because of what it had to say about homosexual love – I would rather they looked just at the literary merit….

  11. The opening lines of my own review – ”
    Divided into three sections, The Line of Beauty, winner of the 2004 Booker Prize, is a beautifully written but pompous novel of privilege, hypocrisy, loneliness and belonging”

  12. I felt just like you. He was a main attraction at the Copenhagen BookFair that year – or was it the year after? He was a good performer, and as I visited friends in London often during the Thatcher years, I thought “this is worth reading”, so I bought the English paperback and started reading. But I gave up. I just couldn’t find any interest in these people.

    • It was indeed hard to find anything to engage me in those characters initially – the Feddens seemed horribly pretentious. By the close I did feel some sympathy for Nick though.

  13. This stood unread on my bookshelves for years (decades?) and when I moved it was one of those which didn’t make the cut. I don’t feel so bad about that now!

  14. Well, I can’t say I’ve ever been drawn to this, and I’m even less inclined now I’ve read your review. My tolerance for reading about 80s Tory excess was never going to be that great anyway! 😀

  15. You obviously struggled with this one – well done for finishing. I was underwhelmed as well – didn’t make me want to read anything else by Hollinghurst.

  16. Your first paragraph made me laugh out loud, Karen! We’re in agreement on this one.

  17. I read this a good few years ago and to be honest, I can’t remember a thing about it. Even reading your review didn’t bring anything back. That can’t be good!

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