Hollinghurst...cleverly and subtly plays the English novelist of whom he most disapproves off against the one he most favors without losing anything. His own natural tendency to create an apolitical society, where aesthetic arguments are punctuated by sexual athletics, now allows an opposing force deeply inimical to his imagination, which insists on public life, the trappings of power, as the natural subject of the novel … The novel moves forward in a series of brilliant set scenes, pieces of atmosphere, moods sharply described and delineated. The plot, such as it is, deals with the enrichment of Nick’s experience, his moving from snobbish provincial to uneasy cosmopolitan, his close observing of the rich and the ruling class, his experiences with drugs, sex, and high art.
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.
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.