I'm rather ambivalent about this book. My opinion of it kept changing as I was reading it, and still hasn't gelled much in either direction. Not really a good sign.
The story concerns Nick Guest, a young Oxford graduate who seems rather directionless in life. After finishing school, he moves in with the family of a classmate, although he and the classmate don't seem to know each other very well. Much of the motivation for Nick is his yearning for a romance with his chum, something the chum (not being gay himself) seems hardly to notice. Meanwhile, the chum's father is a member of Parliament, the chum's mother is quite charming, and the chum's sister is both emotionally unstable and highly insightful about the family's foibles and shortcomings. Despite the differences between the Feddens family and his own, Nick blends in sufficiently to seem less friend or house guest than part of the furniture.
This down-the-rabbit-hole, everything-stands-on-its-head quality of Nick's transition from a lower-middle-class upbringing into the minefield milieu of the highest classes of the land explains why the epigraph for this novel is drawn from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The author masterfully reminds us of the connection throughout the novel, without ever seeming clumsy or heavy-handed about it.
Against the backdrop of 1980's family and national politics, Nick comes to terms with his homosexuality, though he never officially comes out of the closet. He has artistic aspirations and a highly evolved sensibility for the finer things in life (most of which money can buy, starting with cocaine and moving on to things like nice cars and a private wine cellar), but not much ambition. He experiences a clandestine first love, then moves on to a very wealthy lover, a progression of relationships that echoes the gay scene of the day: cautious exploration, followed by enthusiastic promiscuity, followed by the decimation of AIDS.
In the first section of the book, I rather quickly grew tired of the amount of sexual content. It wasn't especially graphic, but the references were relentless. I found myself wishing that Nick could, say, walk to the corner to post a letter without thinking about having sex with every man he passed on the street. Soon enough, however, the story line turned to politics and I found myself longing for a little sexual innuendo to liven things up again.
Eventually the personal and political story lines converge, with life-changing consequences for Nick. I found the ending of this book terribly gray and sad, perhaps because the shift was inevitable. No matter how well one blends in, one can't stay in the looking-glass world forever.
Excerpt (Nick waits for his friend's father to arrive home on election night):
Nick topped up his drink and went out onto the balcony. He rallied to the surprising chill out there. Gerald's close shave at the ballot box was a drama and an embarrassment, and it was going to be hard to know what to say when he got home. Congratulations might sound sarcastic or unduly blithe, even to Gerald. Anyway, he was in, and everything could go on as planned. His gleaming grin floated against the dark trees for a while, and then faded, as perishable as all news. Slowly the trees themselves took on shape and detail in the light from the houses and from the softly reflecting night clouds. Nick loved the gardens; when he strolled between the house and the gardens through the private gate he seemed to glance up at his own good luck, in the towering planes on one side and the white-stuccoed cliff on the other. It would be good to be out there now; but it was too dripping and cold. There were wonderful expanses of summer ahead, no need to panic.
Note: this review is also posted on my blog, Hotchpot Cafe.