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In Thatcher's London, sex, drugs, and the ruling class

The Line of Beauty
By Alan Hollinghurst
Bloomsbury, 438 pp., $24.95

Alan Hollinghurst has always been known for his lustrous prose and candid depictions of gay relationships. True to form, his fourth novel, ''The Line of Beauty" -- which recently won the Man Booker Prize and represents his most ambitious work to date -- is a sumptuous, if prolix, portrait of dissolute 1980s London, when greed and power bespoke glamour and privilege.

''The Line of Beauty" opens in 1983 with the reelection of Margaret Thatcher and the installation of 101 new Tory members of Parliament, among them Gerald Fedden. The novel's sweet-natured protagonist, Nick Guest, went to Oxford with Fedden's son and is now letting an attic room in the Feddens' Kensington Park Gardens house. Twenty years old, Nick is about to start his doctorate at University College on style in the 19th-century novel, principally Henry James's work. He has ingratiated himself into becoming a family confidant, entrusted by Gerald's rich wife to look after their daughter, Catherine, a manic-depressive with a history of cutting herself. Through them, Nick is admitted to a string of high-culture affairs -- black-tie dinners in posh country homes, private music recitals, holidays in France.

Nick considers himself a true aesthete, always in delight when he spots a Guardi, Rembrandt, or Czanne hanging in these aristocrats' living rooms, the Victorian furnishings familiar to him from visits he made with his father, an antiques dealer in Barwick, to wind his clients' clocks. Nick's sense of place in this opulent world is complicated. Frequently he feels like an interloper, snubbed to the periphery. At one party, for which he must dab cologne on a hand-me-down dinner jacket to mask its stale smell, he is introduced to a group of people, ''a large loose circle who turned momentarily to inspect him and turned back as if they'd failed to see anything at all." But just as often, Nick appropriates an odd sense of entitlement, convinced he belongs to the ruling class.

He becomes infatuated with the Feddens and all that attends them. The mood of the government is that ''the economy's in ruins, no one's got a job, and they just don't care, it's bliss," and similarly Nick ignores the hypocrisy, racism, and snobbery he witnesses, seduced by the beauty of the Feddens' lives -- a very Jamesian theme, of course. When he falls in love with Leo, a black civil servant, then meets his family, Nick is taken aback by ''some absurd social reflex, the useful shock of class difference."

Blithely he stays on at Kensington Park Gardens, and as the novel jumps to 1986, Nick acquires a new lover, Wani Ouradi, a Lebanese playboy who is the heir to a supermarket chain. Wani is a philistine and rou of the highest order, possessing an insatiable appetite for threesomes, pornography, and cocaine, a pharmaceutical bent that Nick begins to share. Wani starts a company called Ogee -- named by Nick after Hogarth's ''line of beauty" -- with vague plans to produce films and an art magazine, and Nick is retained as an adviser. In return, he keeps Wani's predilections hidden from his family and longtime fiance. It's one of several secrets that Nick must conceal, others belonging to Gerald and Catherine, and occasionally the responsibility seems too much, weighing on him ''like a sleepy conscience."

It is actually Catherine who, even clouded by lithium, is the real conscience in the novel. At one point, during a pompous argument about the distinction between baroque and rococo architecture, she decries the whole discussion as ''froth." Her impatience is well warranted. Some of the passages, particularly when characters launch into discourses on culture, seem interminable. The descriptions are always lush, the repartee is always droll (very British), but they can be soporific. Stylistically, this is not a novel for everyone. It becomes difficult keeping track of the many names and allusions that are later important to the plot. It's also hard to believe that Nick ends up lodging in the Feddens' house for four years, and that no one ever suspects he and Wani are lovers.

But things decidedly speed up in the last third of the novel. ''The Lady" herself, Thatcher, finally makes an appearance at one of Gerald's parties, a high point in his political career just before his inevitable fall from grace. Nick is a casualty of the ensuing scandal, the entire Fedden family feeling he has betrayed them, and the specter of AIDS, which Hollinghurst has wisely kept as an adumbration, suddenly enters the novel with startling power and emotionality.

''The Line of Beauty" is carried throughout by Hollinghurst's exquisite prose and authorial restraint. He withholds moral judgment, not letting his narrative stoop to invective or mere satire. During one dinner, Nick is asked what Henry James would make of the people at the table, and Nick says, ''He'd have been very kind to us, he'd have said how wonderful we were and how beautiful we were, he'd have given us incredibly subtle things to say, and we wouldn't have realized until just before the end that he'd seen right through us." That is exactly, to his credit, what Hollinghurst does in this languorous novel, capturing a memorable British era of gilt and sorrow.

Don Lee is the editor of Ploughshares and the author most recently of the novel ''Country of Origin."

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