A man’s inability to be honest about his sexuality has scandalous, and brutally public, consequences for several generations.
At the outset of this novel, in 1940, all the gay men and at least one straight woman in a literary club at Oxford are infatuated with beautiful David Sparsholt, a first-year engineering student who initially seems oblivious to the attention. One student, Evert Dax, the son of famous, inexplicably bestselling novelist A.V. Dax, is determined to bed Sparsholt. (Ostensibly straight Freddie Green, whose memoir about his years at Oxford makes up the first section of the novel, claims Sparsholt has a “dull square face.”) Sparsholt’s straight bona fides (he has a girlfriend) soon come into thrilling question. The students watch warily at night for German bombs in the World War II–era opening of the novel, which soon transitions to 1966, when Sparsholt’s 14-year-old son, Johnny, lusts after Bastien, a French exchange student who's living with his family. Johnny is the heart of the story, and in the ensuing sections taking place over many decades he gives Hollinghurst the opportunity to track the vast, transformative changes in gay life since David Sparsholt attended Oxford. Johnny is a fascinating character: a painter who is sensitive, proudly bohemian, sometimes rejected in love, and still eager for love at an advanced age, but always calmly aware of who he is and the dangers of trying to be someone else. It’s a lesson he learned from his father’s arrogant belief that he could skirt the restrictive, heterosexual mores of pre–sexual liberation England. If this plot sounds like it couldn't possibly have been the work of a Man Booker Prize–winning author, part of Hollinghurt’s (The Stranger's Child, 2011, etc.) bold talent in this novel, as in his previous work, is to make it evident that lust, sex, and who does what with whom in the bedroom (and even how) are fitting, and insightful, subjects of literary fiction.
A novel full of life and perception; you end the book not minding that the actual Sparsholt affair gets just the barest of outlines.