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Hollinghurst, Alan (b. 1954)  
 
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The novel concludes with Edward standing on a beach staring longingly at the face of Luc on a "Missing Person" poster, much as Orst himself had been left some eighty years before to study obsessively the sea into which his beloved had disappeared.

The Spell

Edward, Luc, and the painter Edgard Orst suffer under the erotic spells cast by the respective objects of their desire. Similarly, "the last two weeks have been extraordinary," Alex confides to a friend about his affair with the significantly younger Danny midway through Hollinghurst's third novel; "I feel as if I'm under a beautiful spell." The problem with spells, his friend Hugh rejoins, "is that you don't know at the time if they're good ones or bad ones. All black magicians learn how to sugar the pill."

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Hollinghurst's The Spell departs from the use of a central intelligence that characterizes his other works, and follows instead the intersecting lives of four gay men, aged 22 to 47. The events in each chapter are seen from one or another character's point of view. As notable as this departure in narrative technique is, however, Hugh's rejoinder places The Spell squarely within the thematic concerns of Hollinghurst's other work: the impossibility of understanding fully the social and emotional contexts in which one is called upon to function; the ambivalent nature of rapture (whether one allows oneself to be carried away by music, drugs, sex, or romance); and the extent to which the secrets that lie in the heart of another person make him finally unknowable to his partner, rendering sexual attraction all the more mysterious or magical a process.

Appropriating a plot device that has been a staple of British fiction and drama, and that Hollinghurst's contemporaries Terrence McNally and Peter Cameron likewise adapt to gay purposes in Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994) and The Weekend (1994), respectively, the novel's action unfolds around multiple weekends spent by a group of gay men one summer in the Dorset countryside.

On the first weekend, Alex--an attractive yet inhibited and dismayingly earnest thirty-six-year-old Whitehall functionary--has been invited to stay with his former partner, Justin, who is now living with Robin, the older, aggressive architect for whom Justin left Alex the year before. The other house guest that weekend is Danny, Robin's twenty-two-year-old son by an early marriage, with whom Alex begins an affair following their return to London.

Two weeks later, Danny and Alex return on midsummer's eve for the bash that Robin has allowed his son to throw to celebrate his twenty-third birthday. While Danny and Alex's relationship survives the storm surrounding its revelation, Robin and Justin's relationship risks foundering upon a lie that Justin tells concerning a former affair.

Two weeks following, Robin offers the cottage to Alex and Danny after he and Justin make a trial separation and Robin initially cannot bear to stay there alone. But on the final weekend in summer, Alex and Danny return to find Justin and Robin reconciled while their own relationship slips into decline. Tiring of the attentions of a more serious, older man, Danny breaks with Alex, repeating Justin's devastating abandonment of Alex a year earlier.

On his first visit to Dorset, touring a Victorian mausoleum that Robin (who specializes in architectural restoration) has been hired to rehabilitate, Alex marvels at how the high vaulted roof is able to stand without any interior support. "It's the whole thing of stresses and strains, isn't it?" he asks, providing the governing metaphor of the novel. It is impossible to anticipate how any of the four men in the novel will bear the pressures of life, except through the supporting "stresses and strains" of their shifting relationships that become apparent through the "tensions of [each] weekend."

The narrative of the four weekends is framed by a prologue recounting the day, twenty-two years earlier, when Robin learned while on an architectural field study trip that he was to become a father; and by an epilogue, set fourteen months after Danny's break with Alex, when Alex makes a final visit to Robin and Justin's cottage, bringing with him the partner with whom he has recently become involved. The appearance of a shard of white china containing the inscription "sempe," which Robin found at a ruined structure in the American southwest and interprets to be a fragment of the Latin semper ("always"), links the various scenes and provides an ambiguous comment upon the strength--or futility--of hope.

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