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The Spell Hardcover – April 1, 1999

3.8 out of 5 stars 39 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Alan Hollinghurst writes like a dream about the nightmare of unequal affection. In his third novel, The Spell, four men dance around one another, their emotions and actions ranging from casual cruelty to anxiety to adoration. Hollinghurst's painful but smiling roundelay alternates between Dorset--where 40ish architect Robin shares a house with the impossibly self-involved Justin--and London. When Justin's ex, Alex, arrives for a weekend in the country, the atmosphere is instantly rich with jealousy and power plays. And after the trio is joined by a younger gay man, Danny--who turns out to be Robin's son--the attractions and duplicities multiply exponentially. Alex, for instance, soon admits to Danny, "I've got a ruinous taste for takers," and they (and we) are off and running.

As ever, Hollinghurst's prose is musical and sensual but also deeply witty. Even the birds in this novel modulate their song from somnolent calls to outright chuckles--echoing the pleasures and absurdities of the humans they circle. And the author's feel for the easy intimacies and brutalities that his characters exchange is unmatched. As Justin (clad only in a tanga) escorts Alex around the cottage, he points out some vases: "These pots, darling, were made by potters of the greatest probity." Hollinghurst's descriptions are marvelous, whether of landscape or human frailty. After leaving a rather unrelaxed restaurant with Alex, "Danny recovered his air of bossiness and mystery, like a prefect in the school of pleasure." And when the two obtain some Ecstasy and hit one of Danny's haunts--a brilliantly realized club--the author reveals the rapture and idiocy in each moment:

The boys glistened and pawed at the ground. They looked like members of some dodgy brainwashing cult.... Alex saw that what he most wanted was happening and groped marvellingly between the different kinds of happiness, the chemicals and the sex. It seemed that happening and happiness were the same, he must remember that, to tell everyone.
But as amusing as Alan Hollinghurst is, his forte is loss. Again and again he reminds us that solitary sadness is a wink away from comedy and sexual possession. --Kerry Fried

From Publishers Weekly

Confirming his status as the preeminent new voice chronicling the worldly, debauched erotics of linguistically limber gay British men, Hollinghurst (The Swimming-Pool Library; The Folding Star, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize) explores London's drug-addled discos and Dorset's country charms. This colorful and often breathtakingly eloquent novel follows the lives of four gay men in the late '90s. After his longtime lover dies from AIDS, Robin Woodfield, "big and fit and handsomely unshaven"Aand at 46 still scoring with much younger menAsets up house with the utterly selfish and duplicitous (though of course fetching) 35-year-old Justin. The two had been meeting for regular and "fierce speechless sex" in a public loo during the degeneration of Justin's relationship with the decent, tender and very handsome Alex. But Alex isn't exactly dumped. He spends a weekend at the Dorset cottage with the lovebirds, and succumbs to the sexual charm of another Woodfield, Robin's randy gay son, Danny. Alcohol, drugs and a high-camp combination of butch bravado and queenly preening keep the social wheels lubricated. A witty and ingenious writer, Hollinghurst weaves prose that shifts deftly from steamy sex to genteel country living, from edgy cocaine-fed conversations to delicately sensuous observations about the "tussocky hillside" or "crowded dim moons of cow-parsley." He also conveys a significant empathy for the perennial struggle of urban gay men to find true love without forfeiting their sexual autonomy. The author excels at pithy character portraits, and his keen observations of human nature (gay and otherwise) give a depth and realism even to the bit players in this marvelous tale. Agent, Aitken & Stone. BOMC selection; author tour.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

The latest book club pick from Oprah
"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead is a magnificent novel chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. See more

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult (April 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670883565
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670883561
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 0.9 x 6.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #575,891 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Ricky Hunter on June 17, 2001
Format: Paperback
Alan Hollinghurst's The Spell is, first and foremost, wonderfully written. The author manages, for the most part, to effectively capture different generations (perhaps weakest on the youngest generation) far more than most writers in the gay field. I do not know that it was necessary for them all to be so specatular looking (or at least to their physical beauty to be referred to so often as a part of the narrative). It is the writing, though, that, in the end, will carry the reader through the lives of these four men as they examine and obscure their past, present and future. It is a pleasant read with a satisfying ending.
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Format: Paperback
I am enchanted by this novel. It has everything a good tale should have. Love, flirtation, disappointment in the lives of the four main characters, suspension and denouement in their actions or passivity, a wonderful description of the environment in which these upper-middle class Englishmen move, a lovely style so full of unexpected turns of phrase and new insights for someone like me who was never attracted by drugs, life in the country or people older than me.

What however strikes me most is the absence of happenings that are typically gay. Perhaps the only true gay experience lies in the switch of Robin's persuasion from hetero husband to gay father and this must have happened twenty years ago and is not gone into in any great detail. All the other events could occur in any group of people not necessarily gay.

Danny, whose development from a flirtatious, irresponsible young thing to a person of maturity, could be Daniela; Justin, who leaves Alex for Robin, Danny's father, could be Justine; Terry, the slut, could be the village whore, Teresa. A few minor characters who move in gay circles could be the personnel of any novel. Alex's mid-life crisis which drives him to young blood, is not a particularly gay feature. Nor are the whims and predilections of the novel's characters particular to gay lifestyle.

To sum up: Alan Hollinghurst has written a masterly novel which should attract anyone whether gay or not, because it is a perfect comédie humaine.
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By A Customer on July 23, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Hollinghurst's third novel is very much like an eighteenth-century play or opera (think "Marriage of Figaro" or, more recently, Sondheim's "A Little Night Music") in which social mores are explored and exposed through the follies of a tight band of entwined (so to speak) characters. Like in a play, each of the four men here is given his moment in the sun, which has the wonderful effect of giving us insight into characters both sympathetic (Alex) and despicable (Justin), all of whom are revealed to have just as much humanity as all the rest of us flawed humans. Also as with a play, the "stage" of the novel is quite circumscribed: principally, gay London and Robin's country house, where a big summer party is the novel's central scene. Hollinghurst is a master craftsman when it comes to language; his first novel, "The Swimming Pool Library," was a historical tour de force, while his second, "The Folding Star," featured great scenes and compelling characters but failed to hold together, ending much too abruptly after considerable meandering. "The Spell" on the other hand is tightly constructed, a spellbinding read that I couldn't put down. Hollinghurst has taken the stale genre of the comedy of manners and created something utterly fresh and wonderful.
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Format: Hardcover
I must declare I'm not an avid literature critic - but Hollinghurst's THE SPELL is one book that is savagely hilarious and uproariously witty. It is laudable that Hollinghurst has managed to intertwine and chronicle the love-life of 4 distinctive men as a poignant paragon of the solitude and recklessness of the gay culture. I like especially the gentle and sentimental Alex - and the part of the book where he is introduced to the glitzy bar and drugs by Danny - it's been such an eye-opener. The descriptions used by Hollinghurst is haunting and imaginative - like that of his intelligent use of "the moths and birds" to mock at the characters' folly wickedly. Sardonic humour laced with irony - it's gay literature at its best. Not to mention the eroticism of Hollinghurst's description - it's instant classic. However, the book clearly shines at where loss is concerned - it's acutely realistic and savage especially where Robin lost his lover to AIDS and Alex overcoming his lost love and sense of loss. Justin, being the sarcastic and selfish wisecracker, comes off as a timely comedic relief to the already bitter situation.
Hollinghurst may not have the deeper insights on life as on his earlier books in here, but THE SPELL weaves magic in its lyrical prose which captures such rich imagination. The end of the book evokes a tinge of sadness and asperity over their convoluted life. "Some people may never know what it's like to fall in love - just like some musicians who knew nothing about music beyond their gift for making it." - Such is Hollinghurst's ingenious insight on love which is sadly rare and obliterated from other gay literature, and because of his keen observations, his work is enchanting and excruciatingly real.
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