Thinking About Reading The Stranger’s Child (full of spoilers)

November 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

A year ago, I went to Dublin, and upon the suggestion of a friend, took Alan Hollinghurst’s A Line Of Beauty with me. It was gorgeous, traveling with that book, that thickly settled Thatcherite novel of manners. So how perfect was it that this November would find me again traveling internationally, and again with a Hollingshurst title to keep me company.

So in window seat 38A and in the hotel room, jetlagged, and then, as I become absorbed, even in the lobby when I should have been sightseeing, I gobbled up A Stranger’s Child. Two-thirds of the way through, I started wondering what I was reading for–it could not simply be evidence of Cecil Valence’s homosexuality, could it? After all, we readers knew the answer, since we had been there in those first 100 hundred pages (probably, for those of us who love a British period piece, made then or now, the best pages). And we knew Hollingshurst’s m.o. by now: normalize homosexuality, make of it no big deal. He was writing the Jamesian novel about men in love without having to yell “HEY! THIS IS ABOUT MEN IN LOVE! GAYS! I’M MAKING A STATEMENT.”


So there had to be something else, I thought, in the bathtub in Cascais, on the edge of Europe, as I neared the end. Some big reveal, some surprising plot twist. Something other than whether or not Paul would get that crucial bit of information. Since, after all, we knew the answer and the book was getting on in pages.

But: no.

Then,, I decided what Hollingshurst was doing was something very clever: he was mimicking the experience of us reading those first 100 pages. Not mimicking exactly– performing it? commenting on it? externalizing it through Paul et. al. They asked the questions we readers had asked back in the boarding area waiting for the flight to be called, when we were reading about George and Two Acres and all. What happened to George after that weekend? What did Daphne do in the days and years after Cecil attacked/seduced her? How did George recover from Cecil’s courting of Daphne? These questions–the questions Hollingshurst puts in the readers mind at the beginning–paralleling the questions Paul keeps asking of Daphne, George, etc.–were what the end was really about–the reading experience, the experience of reading, wondering, trying to fill in the blanks, the missing pieces. Just like Paul! We are Paul! How smart and clever and Oh! I thought.

But you know what? I’m not sure that’s what Hollingshurst was after. The book ended without a wink in that direction, at least not one I caught.  Did I miss it? Or did I project this meta-, more interesting purpose onto the novel in lieu of anything more compelling from the author or plot?

I left my copy of the book on the pillow of my hotel room in Portugal, along with a few euros, for the maids. A hardback, you see, so no point lugging it home. So I cannot re-thumb through to think through this theory-ette of mine. I read James Wood’s review in the New Yorker, and, phooey, he did not decide the book was about the experience of reading the book. Just Paul and the gang trying to find out if Cecil really did things with boys or not.

No, there is no reveal at the end of this blog post, either. No big point to send you off thinking more about thinking about reading. But if any of you have read the book (and good god I hope if you’ve read this post you’ve read the book), and have some thoughts about the above (or about Portuguese hotel rooms, and what one should leave as tip), let me know.


§ One Response to Thinking About Reading The Stranger’s Child (full of spoilers)

  • Or was the book actually about withholding as a necessary ingredient for the preservation of love? George’s mother has read Cecil’s letters to George. SHE knows Cecil was George’s lover before he seduced Daphne. And George knows that she knows. But neither of them ever tells Daphne, who falls in love with one gay man and marries a second (without realizing both are gay, or at least bi? Or does she wilfully and repeatedly ignore the evidence?). And Paul and George both know that Cecil asked not only Daphne but another woman to ‘be his widow.’ Does George’s wife know he’s gay/bi? Does she care?

    All these unanswered questions made for a fascinating rather than a frustrating read. This was my first Hollinghurst – looking forward to working backwards through the canon.

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