The winner of the Booker Prize 2004, The Line of Beauty is an intricate portrait of class, politics and sexuality in Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s Britain

Whether you’re new to The Line of Beauty or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide.

Written by Emily Facoory

Publication date and time: Published


In his 2004 Booker Prize-winning novel, Alan Hollinghurst portrays a ruthless decade through Nick, an increasingly-less-innocent abroad, as he gets caught up in the boom years of the 80s.

It is the summer of 1983, and young Nick Guest has moved into an attic room in the Notting Hill home of the Feddens: Gerald, an ambitious new Tory MP, his wealthy wife Rachel, and their children. As the boom years of the mid-80s unfold, Nick, an innocent in matters of politics and money, becomes embroiled in the Feddens’ world, with its grand parties, its holidays in the Dordogne, and its parade of monsters both comic and threatening.

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

The main characters

Nick Guest

Twenty-year-old Nick Guest is the protagonist of the story. He comes from a middle-class background and has just graduated from Oxford University with a degree in English. After graduating, Nick moves in with the Feddens, the wealthy family of one of his Oxford friends. Nick struggles with his identity as he tries to fit in with upper-class society, while exploring his sexuality. 

Wani Ouradi

Wani Ouradi is the closeted son of a wealthy Lebanese businessman. He leads a lavish lifestyle and enters into a secret relationship with Nick, even though he has a female fiancée. They hide their relationship under the guise of Nick helping Wani with a screenplay and establishing a luxury magazine.

Gerald Feddens

Gerald Feddens is the father of Nick’s friend Toby, in whose house Nick stays while in London. He is a successful businessman and a Conservative MP. Ambitious and selfish, he has no problem stepping on people to get what he wants, especially if it furthers his political career.

THE LINE OF BEAUTY film still with Oliver Coleman, Dan Stevens, Alex Wyndham in 2006.

About the author

Born in Stroud, England, Alan Hollinghurst is a novelist, poet, short story writer and translator. He is the author of one of the most highly praised debut novels of the 1980s, The Swimming-Pool Library, and was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 1993. His second novel, The Folding Star, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize. The Line of Beauty won the Booker Prize in 2004 and he was longlisted again, in 2011, with The Stranger’s Child. His forthcoming novel, Our Evenings, will be published in October 2024. 

Alan Hollinghurst

What the critics said:

Thomas Jones, The London Review of Books

The Line of Beauty is told in the third person, but everything is filtered through a single consciousness, Nick’s: we see things as he sees them, so there is no logistical reason for the novel not to have been in the first person. It isn’t, however, partly because it’s more Jamesian not to be; and also because Nick is an actor on a public stage as well as an individual with a private life […] Nick holds an uncertain position in the world he moves in: he is there because the others want him to be; he isn’t wealthy enough to survive on his own. What he has to offer is a refined aesthetic sense, the ability to appreciate in elegant sentences the beautiful things that the people around him are able to buy. He doesn’t make beautiful things himself, but he does, by the way that he sees them, make things beautiful.’

Anthony Quinn, The New York Times Sunday Book Review

‘Moralist that he is, Hollinghurst generally prefers to proceed through subtle modulations of irony, slipping in a dagger rather than wielding a cutlass. This treatment is as true for Nick as for the cast of grandees and gargoyles among whom he moves. His ambivalent character is a vehicle for the novel’s central tension – between private conscience and public display […] Although it gathers ominously in mood, The Line of Beauty feels more blissful than baleful in its anatomy of the era because it is, among other things, a magnificent comedy of manners. Hollinghurst’s alertness to the tiniest social and tonal shifts never slackens, and positively luxuriates in a number of unimprovably droll set pieces.’

Peter Conradi, The Independent

‘Alan Hollinghurst likes to shock with vivid sex scenes. Yet to ghetto-ise him as a “gay novelist” is too limiting. He is much, much bigger than that. And here at last he shows real scope and depth. … The rich – Jesus might have said – “Ye shall always have with you.” Hollinghurst has studied them, as they once were, back in the far-away mid-Eighties. His brilliant recreation of that bigoted, nepotistic, racist, callous and mean-spirited epoch is timely. If Thatcher’s London has rarely been better “done” by a British novelist, Hollinghurst loves the city more than most. ‘

Alfred Hickling, The Guardian

For the first time, there is a clear sense that Hollinghurst has extended his powers to create a universe rather than a clique; and though it adopts a highly privileged perspective, the novel has sufficient breadth to evoke the full social spectrum of 1980s Britain - gay and straight, rich and poor.

Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

‘Hollinghurst interlaces three different plots – a Condition of England novel set during the Thatcher era of the 1980s, a Jamesian psychological inquiry cum social comedy about the well-to-do Fedden family and their friends, and a gay coming-of-age story […] Throughout Nick remains the center of consciousness, always sympathetic, even as he grows increasingly coarse in his sexual sophistication (and taste for cocaine). What makes the book so fine, though, is its writing — suffused with enough wit to keep the diction original and lively without overpowering the reader with campiness or excess. 

David Wiegand, The San Francisco Chronicle

‘The story may focus on the uneasy coexistence among different classes and races in the middle of the Thatcher era in England, but the times themselves are the central character. On the surface – and, make no mistake, the significance of surface is more than superficial here – the setting seems obvious and apt […] The world of the upper classes is unsafely sheltered within a bubble of self-delusion, and the greatest self-delusion of all is that somehow their rank and privilege will protect them, not just from AIDS but also from the social, political and moral decay that their studied class indifference has wrought.’

Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times 

‘Privilege and parasitism, bluster and bigotry, cocaine bingeing and stock-market finagling … they’re all here. And it sure doesn’t hurt that Hollinghurst is one of the best writers of party scenes since F. Scott Fitzgerald […] Hollinghurst is a dab hand at weaving these multiple strands of Nick’s life together, and he knows exactly how to build tension through incisive character portrayal. Catherine and Wani are temperamental time-bombs, in constant danger of detonation. Thatcher is an éminence grise who might just make an appearance in the book. AIDS is a threat about to hit Nick’s circle. Tory eagerness to ‘get public services back into private hands’ as quickly as possible seems bound to produce some fallout of its own.’

What the author said:

‘I had two main feelings about that kind of press attention – that it was predictable and trivial and occasionally funny (‘Gay Sex Wins Booker’ I remember was one headline), and that it was a cheering sign that gay content and point-of-view, and gay sex, indeed, hadn’t been reasons to disqualify the book from attention but were celebrated as part of its interest. If a fuss was made about the novel’s gayness, it seemed also to suggest that the time was at hand when it might no longer cause a fuss.’

Read the full interview here. 

‘The narrative germ was accompanied by a dreamlike perspective of Kensington Park Gardens, a street that, when I first lived in London in 1981, I walked along several times a week on my way to swim at a local baths, and whose imposing houses, rather scruffier then than now, made me wonder about the lives led in them – it was all a part of my romantic sense of London as a scene of infinite possibilities, both real and fictional.’

Read the full interview at Pan

‘I always like writing party scenes. One of the things about it is everybody is saying and doing things they might not otherwise say or do, which they might or might not regret. The Line of Beauty was really one party scene after another. It seemed to be a good way of writing about that period with all this competitive hospitality and ostentation. And just technically, for writing, a party is a very good way to bring everyone together and let you observe them at the same time. They usually have a comic ingredient. But I’ve always enjoyed doing them. You have to keep a guest list beside you on the desk to remind you, “We haven’t seen much of so-and-so for a few minutes.”’

Read the full interview at Interview Magazine.

‘I don’t like research very much. If you’re writing a novel in a historical period, you’ve got to get the facts and the language right, but I’m always wary of too many period signifiers because oddly after a while they start to reduce the sense of authenticity. I wanted to get a sense of what lived experience was like in the past without all of the self-consciousness that comes from a writer trying to recreate it decades later.’

Read the article in the Telegraph

Alan Hollinghurst arrives at the Booker Prize 2023 awards, London

Questions and discussion points

The Line of Beauty is structured in three parts, with each taking place in a different year: 1983, 1986 and 1987. Why do you think Alan Hollinghurst decided to document Nick’s journey across these three particular points in time?

Hollinghurst centres The Line of Beauty around gay experiences, highlighting the AIDS epidemic and the associated stigma. Do you believe his portrayal of the challenges faced by the gay community during the 1980s is an accurate representation? How does his depiction contribute to our understanding of the social and cultural attitudes of the time?

Nick comes from a middle-class background but becomes immersed in the world of the wealthy upper-class Fedden family. How does Hollinghurst use Nick’s perspective as an outsider serve to highlight and critique the differences in values and opportunities between the classes? And what commentary does the novel provide on the rigid class divisions in British society?

The UK’s 1980s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is, according to the New York Times, ‘a presence felt throughout the book but, like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, invisible until near the end’ and referred to as ‘the Lady’. Then, in one notable scene, Nick, while under the influence of drugs, meets and dances with Thatcher. What does the presence of this real figure bring to the book, and does it bring an added layer of authenticity?

Considering the political climate of the 1980s, and how LGBTQIA+ people were treated and perceived at the time, discuss how different the story might have been if The Line of Beauty was set in present day. How would the challenges that Nick and his friends faced have differed? 

Upon winning the Booker Prize in 2004, much of the media response focused on the characters’ sexual orientation. ‘A novel full of explicit gay sex seduced the judges,’ wrote the Telegraph, while the Times of India said called The Line of Beauty ‘a novel bursting with gay sex and Thatcherite excesses’. Do you think the response was unfair, and how different do you think the media’s response may have been if the novel was published now? 

Nick is pursuing a PhD in literature, focusing on the acclaimed British-American writer Henry James, author of The Turn of the Screw. Hollinghurst has admitted that James was an influence, telling the Guardian: ‘James was my own obsession at the time, and I worked him in in various ways, also taking up the Jamesian challenge of narrating a large-scale novel in the third person entirely from the point of view of one character.’ In your reading, did you find similarities with James’s work, or with other chroniclers of London life, such as Charles Dickens or Martin Amis? 

Hollinghurst leaves several crucial narrative gaps in the text, such as the unexplained ending of Nick’s relationship with Leo. Why do you think he deliberately chose to omit key aspects of the plot? And how do these omissions affect your interpretation of the characters and the overall story?

At one point in the novel, Catherine says to Nick: ‘People are lovely because we love them, not the other way round’ (Page 304). How did you interpret this quote, and do you agree with Catherine’s sentiment?

There have been several interpretations of the symbolism behind the title ‘The Line of Beauty’, which is taken from a theory of aesthetics that originated with the 18th century satirist William Hogarth. Discuss your initial analysis of the title, and whether your understanding evolved after finishing the novel.

Upon winning the Booker Prize in 2004, much of the media response focused on the characters’ sexual orientation. ‘A novel full of explicit gay sex seduced the judges,’ wrote the Telegraph, while the Times of India said called The Line of Beauty ‘a novel bursting with gay sex and Thatcherite excesses’. Do you think the response was unfair, and how different do you think the media’s response may have been if the novel was published now? 

Resources and further reading

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If you enjoyed this book, why not try

The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst

The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing

Saturday by Ian McEwan

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

The New Life by Tom Crewe

The Golden Bowl by Henry James

Front cover of The Folding Star