Anyone who hasn't spent the last few years living under the proverbial rock is probably at least somewhat aware of the recent rise of the literary genre "chick lit". Books that fall under this category are fairly easy to spot, with covers that usually feature elaborate shoes, loopy typefaces, shopping bags, the color pink, and authors with names like "Plum". A related, or perhaps even sub-genre of chick lit is known as 10021 lit, which gives you, the plebeian reader, a glimpse into 14-room Park Avenue duplexes and the monsters who live there. The fathers are largely absent, either at their jobs on Wall Street or spending quality time at the pied-affaire with their mistresses. The mothers are abusive, high strung, and neurotic, commanding an army of cooks, chauffeurs, maids, and nannies who do the dirty work while they give the AmEx a workout at Bergdorf and the plastic surgeon's office. The children are spoiled and attend expensive private schools. These Creatures from the Upper East Side are most often observed by outsiders, such as nannies, tutors, corporate underlings, or pediatricians. But any social commentary that these authors try to offer amounts to so much address-, brand-name-, and price-tag-dropping. The full extent of their observations seems to be that rich New Yorkers are mean, miserable, devoid of morals, and wont to purchase many expensive objects.
Alan Hollinghurst's 2004 novel The Line of Beauty takes us across the pond to London, probably New York's closest European counterpart. The set-up of the book is much the same. (W11 lit perhaps?) Nick Guest, a recent Oxford graduate, has come to London to pursue a PhD in English and has taken up residence in the elegant Notting Hill townhouse of friend and Oxford classmate Toby Fedden and his family. Yes, we are treated to a variety of glamorous London locales, in addition to Hawkeswoode, an English manor house straight out of a Merchant Ivory film; and the Fedden's manoir in southwestern France. Yes, there are expensive cars, and appearances by the top players of Britain's business and political circles (including a brief, climactic cameo by The Iron Lady herself!) But I fear that I have greatly insulted Hollinghurst by even daring to mention his book in the context of those facetious Stateside trifles. This is real social satire, the genuinely insightful kind that draws its brilliance from subtly constructed characters interacting in the most cleverly arranged set pieces. One of my favorite takes place at the aformentioned French manoir, where the Feddens are playing host to Sir Maurice (the ninth richest man in Britain) and Lady Sally Tipper, who are finding it difficult to adjust to the more relaxed pace of country life despite the best efforts of Toby's father Gerald and the rest of the family:
The Tippers were not natural holidayers. They came beautifully equipped, with four heavy steel-cornered suitcases, and numerous other little bags which had to be handled carefully, but something else, unnoticed by them, was missing.
It was only four thirty but Gerald was marking his guests' arrival with a Pimm's, and Lady Partridge, with her son as her licence, accompanied him in a gin and Dubonnet. The Tippers asked for tea, and sat under the awning, glancing mistrustfully at the view.
Nick tried naively to interest Maurice Tipper in local beauty spots which he hadn't yet seen himself. "You're a fine one to talk!" said Sir Maurice-grinning quickly at Gerald and Toby to show he wasn't so easily taken in. He was used to total deference, and mere pleasantness aroused his suspicion. The democracy of house-party life wasn't going to come naturally to him. Nick looked at his smooth clerical face and gold-rimmed glasses in the light of a new idea, that the ownership of immense wealth might not be associated with pleasure-at least as pleasure was sought and unconsciously defined by the rest of them here.
Sally Tipper had a lot of blonde hair in expensive confusion, and a lot of clicking, rattling, sliding jewellery. She shook and nodded her head a good deal. It was virtually a twitch-of annoyance, or of almost more exasperated agreement. She had a smile that came all at once and went all at once, with no humorous gradations. She said before dinner that she'd like to have drinks indoors, which, since the whole point and fetish of the manoir for the Feddens was to do everything possible outside, didn't promise well.
What makes these passages so brilliantly funny is that the Tippers are real people, not overdone caricatures. Hollinghurst treats us to so many wonderful details ("glancing mistrustfully at the view", "mere pleasantness aroused his suspicion", "no humorous gradations") without mentioning a single brand name item, and thus does so much more than telling us that the Tippers are rich and unhappy, instead showing us two people so frigid and obsessed with their own importance that they can't even enjoy themselves on vacation. A later exchange between the Tippers and Catherine, Toby's younger sister and the loose canon of the family, highlights the author's gift for dialogue:
Catherine blinked a lot and put her head on one side ponderingly. "You're really very rich, aren't you, Sir Maurice," she said after a while.
"Yes, I am," he said, with a snuffle of frankness.
"How much money have you got?"
His expression was sharp, but not entirely displeased. "It's hard to say exactly."
Sally said, "You can never say exactly, can you-it goes up so fast all the time…these days."
"Well, roughly," said Catherine.
"If I died tomorrow."
Sally looked solemn, but interested. "My dear man…!" she murmured.
"Say, a hundred and fifty million."
"Yep…" said Sally, nodding illusionlessly.
Catherine was blank with concealed astonishment. "A hundred and fifty million pounds."
"Well, not lire, young lady, I can assure you. Or Bolivian bolivianos, either."
It reminds me of Oscar Wilde but with a slightly darker edge to it. And the darker edge comes from the fact that Hollinghurst not only deals with social satire, but with the more serious issues of 1980s Britain: the ups and downs of the economy, the reign of Lady Thatcher, AIDS, and rising drug use (especially cocaine). Nick Guest, the narrator, is ideally positioned to observe the ramifications of all of these issues. In living with the Feddens he comes into contact with those who occupy the upper echelons of the British business world, and whose fortunes are tied to the health of the economy. Nick, however, is an aesthete at heart, and enjoys experiencing the trappings of wealth without really knowing or particularly caring where it comes from. When the novel opens, Gerald has just been elected as a Conservative MP for Barwick (coincidentally Nick's home constituency), and even though her appearance in the novel is brief, Margaret Thatcher becomes almost an obsession for not just Gerald (Rachel, his wife, jokingly describes her as "the other woman"), but for many other people that Nick encounters. Being young, attractive, and gay in 1980s London, AIDS is a constant presence in Nick's life. At the beginning of the novel, it is a distant threat that is not very well understood, but by the end the ravages of the disease affect him on a most personal level. Cocaine use almost becomes a metaphor for the boom times of the 1980s: euphoric and high-flying, but ultimately temporary.
The Line of Beauty unfolds almost as a Greek tragedy, with a plot that progresses seamlessly from the simple premise. With his charm, beauty, and intelligence, Nick makes a very easy transition into the glittering world of the Feddens, but as soon as things start to head south for those around him, it doesn't take long for him to be pushed out of that glittering world. This novel is at once a fascinating character study, an astute look at recent history, and a finely crafted morality play.