THE SPELL by Alan Hollinghurst


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Like The Swimming Pool Library (1988) and The Folding Star (1994), Hollinghurst’s third attempts an ambitious exploration of gay male experiences and relationships. Each of four principal characters muddles along (in London and environs) professionally, socially, and romantically, in the grip of his own distinctive obsession (or “spell”). Late-40ish architect Robin Woodfield, mourning the death from AIDS of his lover Simon, seeks another erotic counterpart to “the secret technical joy he had always got from buildings.” Robin’s younger new lover Justin is a campy flibbertigibbet who’s less attentive either to Robin or to his own ex, Alex, than to the sybaritic freedom gained when he comes into a huge inheritance. Alex, a gentle and passive soul who works for the Foreign Office, is betrayed repeatedly by his naive dream of perfect love—most cruelly by Robin’s son Danny, a heedlessly beautiful youth driven by his “blind desire to know the world through sex.” Moving confidently (if at times lugubriously) among their several viewpoints, Hollinghurst brings these four (and also acquaintances such as the handsome young workingman who plays them all expertly) into and out of varying degrees of intimacy and commitment, dramatized most successfully in several crisply observed scenes that include the comic saturnalia of Danny’s 23rd party, a tea-party discussion of campanology (the subtext of which is, predictably, sex), and, especially, Robin’s uncomfortable conversation with an intense young evangelist who claims to have channeled the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. More such scenes would have helped, since the minimal comic relief provided by Justin’s bitchy wit is vitiated by our growing understanding of his essential shallowness and selfishness. This is, in fact, never less than honest and realistic; but it feels limited and insular to the extent that its characters seem defined—and limited—by their sexual natures. A near miss: Hollinghurst can do better. (Book-of-the-Month selection)

Pub Date: April 26th, 1999
ISBN: 0-670-88356-5
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1999


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