The Line of Beauty is divided into three parts: ‘The Love-Chord (1983)’, ‘To Whom Do You Beautifully Belong? (1986)’, and ‘The End of the Street (1987)’. Nick Guest is a recent Oxford undergraduate who lodges with the family of a friend, Toby Fedden. He is treated, almost as soon as he arrives, as one of the family, and his stay, as befitting a family member, is indefinite. The first period of the book begins with Nick and the Fedden’s daughter, Catherine, in their Kensington house, while the rest of the family are holidaying in the south of France. The two of them develop a close bond and they speculate with teenage enthusiasm as to the nature of Nick’s future blind date, a man called Leo who posted a lonely hearts column that Nick replied to. On the evening of the date, however, Nick finds Catherine in a troubled state of mind; she has arranged kitchen knives across her bathroom sink and asks that Nick to look after her until the episode passes. They walk and talk in the nearby gardens, Nick guiltily wishing he were elsewhere, Catherine reticent as to nature of her suffering, until eventually she feels better and they both go back into the house. Although Nick has been instructed to keep an eye on Catherine, and warned about such behaviour by Rachel and Gerald, Catherine’s mother and father, he decides it best not to contact them. This decision, and these events of the opening passage set up an atmosphere that is both unsettling and fundamental to Hollinghurst’s subtle brand of satire; he is a novelist who writes about hypocrisy in families and political groups; the indecency behind what seems to be decent; it also establishes Nick in a role that is divisive; the love he is shown in being accepted into the family puts him in a position where he keeps secrets. Nick and Catherine, and their secrets, though seemingly innocuous at first, become terribly destructive.
Nick’s relationship with Leo begins well: an abrasive sex-session in Kensington’s private gardens, and blossoms throughout the first part of the book. Nick tells Leo that he loves him but Leo is the more experienced and somewhat reluctantly affectionate. At Tobey’s 21st birthday party, held in the estate of his Uncle, Lord Kessler, we meet a host of other characters from Nick’s Oxford past, not to mention the Home Secretary, and Catherine’s boyfriend, the untrustworthy Russell, a photographer who takes pictures of all the guests which make them look rather silly but are graciously (slightly affectedly) tolerated by the head-line-hungry Gerald. Gerald is on the up as the new MP for Barwick.
In the second part of the novel Nick is no longer attached to Leo, and their break-up not detailed, but now desperately in love with the millionaire Wani Ouradi. They set up a business together called Ogee, a shambolic organisation supposedly geared towards film and magazine production but more a front for their coke-sniffing, rent-boy-hiring lifestyle, and one that ensures Wani is kept well funded by his father Bertrand, a Lebanese immigrant who owns a chain of supermarkets and is later made a peer of the realm.
Although Wani is supposedly engaged to be married his fiancée is paid off by his mother to play the role, allowing Wani to indulge his own preferences. This section of the novel is also rounded off by a party: Gerald and Rachel’s wedding anniversary, a party which the PM attends.
In the final section of the book, ‘The End of the Street’, Nick’s understanding of a world which is easy, polite, privileged and in which success can be attained for the right kind of people almost effortlessly, disintegrates. He and the Fedden family suffer a series of misfortunes, some deserved, others not, which rectify a novelistic situation so far mostly beneficial for the unworthy. The first shift in fortunes is felt by Nick: Leo’s sister Rosemary comes to meet him to tell of Leo’s recent death - Leo dies of AIDS - Gerald is next: suddenly he is under investigation for fraud, for fiddling with the prices of shares, and then one fateful evening Nick and Catherine discover Gerald in a state of undress somewhere where he is not meant to be, having been with his PA Penny; this is an affair which Nick had been aware of but had kept secret. Catherine runs away from home and is sheltered by her ex-boyfriend Russell. In the next few days the stories emerge in the papers: the distraught daughter of the cheating MP, and the MP’s lodger, lover of millionaire Peer’s son, also struck down by AIDS; this secret Catherine discovered when Wani and Nick stayed at their holiday home in France. The novel ends after a climactic argument between Gerald and Nick, which makes Gerald out to be something of a monster, and after this Nick leaves the house.
The Line of Beauty is a coming-of-age novel with wide scope; its power lies in revelation; it hides the ugliness of privilege, Conservative apathy and prejudice, free love, socially acceptable generosity, and then exposes. One comes away from the novel saddened because it exposes a method of social masking that is evident in all circles, from university friends to politicians, but also sure of having read a very great and beautifully written work.
This novel won the Man Booker prize in 2004.