The Line of Beauty is formed of three sections: The Love-Chord (1983); ‘To Whom Do You Beautifully Belong?’ (1986) and The End of the Street (1987).
The Love-Chord (1983)
The novel opens just after Margaret Thatcher has won her second term as Prime Minister in the 1983 General Election. Nick Guest, a young gay man who has just gained a first-class degree in English at Oxford University, arrives in London to do postgraduate studies at University College on the work of the novelist Henry James. He moves into the family home of Oxford friend Toby Fedden in Kensington Park Gardens, an up-market street in Notting Hill. Although Toby no longer lives there himself, Nick is warmly welcomed as a lodger by Toby’s parents, the ambitious Tory MP Gerald Fedden and his wife Rachel. He soon becomes close to Toby’s sister Catherine, who has a history of emotional instability and self-harm.
When the Feddens go on holiday to France, Nick is given the responsibility of looking after Catherine. He sees her through a self-harm crisis and decides not to tell her parents about it. Around this time, Nick meets a black council employee, Leo Charles, through a lonely-hearts ad. It is with Leo that Nick has his first sexual encounter, in the communal gardens adjoining the Fedden’s home; he subsequently finds himself very much in love.
Nick accompanies the Fedden family on a visit to Rachel’s wealthy brother, Lord Kessler, who is hosting Toby’s 21st birthday party. His country house in Buckinghamshire is full of valuable antiques and works of art, a source of enormous pleasure to Nick who is the son of an antiques dealer and is obsessed with beauty in architecture, art and music. Although Nick feels somewhat lonely in the manifestly heterosexual atmosphere of Toby’s party, he enjoys fantasising sexual encounters with Tristão, the Madeiran waiter who serves the guests, and with Antoine (Wani) Ouradi, the son of a wealthy Lebanese businessman and an acquaintance of Nick's from Oxford.
Back in London, Nick is invited by Leo to meet his Afro-Caribbean mother and sister at his home in Willesden, where both men are conscious of the subterfuge and deceptions they must engage in to disguise the true nature of their relationship. There is a hint of the forthcoming AIDS crisis: Leo’s former lover Pete is suffering from an unspecified illness.
‘To Whom Do You Beautifully Belong?’ (1986)
Nick’s relationship with Leo has ended, and he has begun a secret relationship with Wani Ouradi, who maintains a pretence of heterosexuality through an engagement to a young French woman called Martine. Wani’s father has financed his son's publishing venture: Wani and Nick plan to publish a classy cultural magazine called Ogee. Both are now regular users of cocaine. Gerald Fedden and Nick spend some time in Barwick in Northhamptonshire, Gerald’s constituency and Nick’s hometown. By chance Nick discovers that Gerald is having an affair with his secretary. During a holiday in France, Catherine works out that Nick and Wani are having a relationship; Nick asks her not to reveal this to anyone else.
Gerald Fedden, now a minister at the Home Office, is able to secure the attendance of Margaret Thatcher at his silver-wedding celebration, and Nick manages to dance with the Lady herself. Meanwhile AIDS has become an established part of gay life in London, and is starting to take its toll.
The End of the Street (1987)
In the 1987 General Election, Gerald Fedden just manages to retain his seat. Nick, who is still working with Wani on Ogee, is informed that Leo has died of AIDS. Wani too has contracted HIV, and his health is deteriorating rapidly. Gerald Fedden is accused of financial irregularities in his business affairs, and the family home is besieged by press photographers. Catherine, whose lithium treatment is not fully controlling her mood swings, finds out about her father’s affair. She reveals all to the press, not only about her father but also about Nick’s relationship with Wani Ouradi, leading to tabloid headlines such as, ‘Gay Sex Romp at MP’s Holiday Home’. As a result, Nick quickly becomes persona non grata at the Feddens, and is asked to leave.
Nick senses he may never see Wadi again. He is painfully aware of the possibility that he too could be HIV-positive, and experiences a profound sense of fear and loneliness as he awaits his test results. He is conscious of how intense his attachment to life is, and how deeply he craves all that the world has to offer.