Britisher Hollinghurst (The Spell, 1998, etc.) isn’t shy: At 400-plus pages sprinkled with references to Henry James, his fourth outing aspires to the status of an epic about sex, politics, money, and high society.
Though he’s best known for his elegant descriptions of gay male life and pitch-perfect prose, Hollinghurst is most striking here for his successful, often damning, observations about the vast divides between the ruling class and everyone else. It’s 1983, and narrator Nick Guest, age 20, is literally a guest in the household of Conservative MP Gerald Fedden, whose son, Toby, Nick befriended at Oxford. Given an attic room and loosely assigned the task of looking after the Feddens’ unstable manic-depressive daughter Catherine, Nick is given entrée into a world of drunken, drug-laced parties at ancestral manors, high-stakes financial transactions, and politicians all obsessed with catching a glimpse of “The Lady”—Thatcher herself (who finally does make a cameo—hilariously—toward the end). Nick pursues his studies in James (though they may seem overkill in a novel already so saturated in the Jamesian) and his search for love—with a young Jamaican office worker, then with a closeted and cokehead Lebanese millionaire—though, as becomes clear, both his scholarship and sexuality are painfully peripheral in the world he’s chosen to inhabit. Oddly, Nick is less interesting as a character than as an observer: His youthful affairs do gain gravitas as the ’80s progress under the specter of AIDS, but over the story’s course he goes from a virginal 20-year-old to a wizened 24-year-old. More fascinating are Hollinghurst’s incisive depictions of the brilliance and ease that insulate and animate the Feddens—especially the witty and difficult Gerald and the spectacular mess that is Catherine.—and the crushing realization that Nick, unlike those around him, does not have the casual luxury to crash up his own life and survive.
A beautifully realized portrait of a decade and a social class, but without a well-developed emotional core.