I read Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize winner, The Line of Beauty, because I wanted to see what people thought was better than David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. And while I still think Mitchell is better, I did enjoy The Line of Beauty. So seeing The Folding Star in a second-hand bookshop for cheap was an easy decision to make.
Edward Manners is a thirty-something tutor who goes to Belgium to teach two very different young boys – Luc Altidore and Marcel Echevin. Unfortunately, Edward falls desperately in love with Luc, making teaching him a problem. At the same time, he is employed to work with Marcel’s father, Paul, on a catalogue of an obscure artist, Orst. As each facet of his life slowly draw together, Edward’s obsession with Luc causes more problems than he could possibly imagine, and reveal secrets he couldn’t dream of.
Obsession is a big word that we tend to throw around a lot to describe people who have more than a passing interest in something. This novel, however, totally redefines what it means to be obsessed by something. Edward’s attraction to Luc is not just a passing interest, a “Oh, he’s cute” kind of way – this is fully blown obsession, bordering on stalking. Edward’s behaviour towards other people is affected by his total love for Luc, to the point where he drives away another man who truly loves him, but cannot deal with the fact that Edward is always thinking about Luc. Not that simple love triangles are the point of the novel. Edward is an intelligent man, but when he thinks about Luc (which is pretty often), he becomes weak and pathetic, like a small child in a lolly shop.
The things he does to fulfil this obsession are many and various, but I particularly like his trick of stealing Luc’s dirty underwear. Nothing weird about that at all. Right? And I suppose that’s an important part of the novel – the question of what we are driven to do when we are in love with someone, someone who more often than not is not in love with us. This is nicely mirrored with Luc’s two best friends, Patrick and Sybille, one of whom is attracted to Luc, but this is the whole mystery of the novel, so I won’t spoil it for you. Actually, yes I will. Look away now if you don’t want to know… It is Sybille who is attracted to Luc, but Luc wants Patrick. And so, really, Edward’s attraction is completely justified (something that is left unanswered until the end of novel), which begs the question, what would have happened had Edward acted on his urges earlier? I like the mirroring at the end of the novel with Marcel’s father, Paul, having been in exactly the same situation as Luc when he was 17 – almost as a justification that Edward’s love and lust for Luc is not something to be seen as dirty or illegal, but as something that can truly be wonderful.
One thing that cannot be forgotten is the swathes of information Hollinghurst provides us with about his fictional artist, Orst. I genuinely thought he was a real artist, there was so much detail in his biography, but apparently not. It does take one away from the main plot of the novel, but there’s so much else going on, why not have a fictional artist haunting your pages? It also gives Paul Echevin his own obsession – a man who could have been so much more than he is, slaving away at a catalogue of an artist who is not even considered major. While he is not a character we inherently pity, there is a sense of sadness around him, especially with his family, and so seeing the end result of obsession is a nice touch.
This is a very sexy book. Not in that I find it attractive, but the novel does teem with pent up sexual energy, mainly from Edward, and sx is very much a vital part of what it is talking about – lust, obsession, desires. The fact that Hollinghurst is labelled as a “gay writer” is not an issue here – what he is writing is a universal human condition. Edward Manners is a man who lives with his obsessions, and yet never truly finds peace with them.