I’m having a hard time writing a review for Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair. It’s a book that defies easy summarization; even the cover synopsis doesn’t really describe the book I read and probably did more harm than good to my understanding.
The story is told in five sections. The first takes place at Oxford during the early 1940’s, with the Blitz in full swing. Two of the characters have a brief affair, giving the book’s title its first meaning. The second section follows one of those characters some 25 years later, married and father of a teenage son, the whole family on holiday in Cornwall. This section is thick with literary irony as we see how similar yet how different the son is from his father. The third section moves on with the son, Johnny, now in his 20’s and new to London and picking up with the same crowd his father knew briefly at Oxford. The fourth section jumps ahead to a point where Johnny has a daughter of his own and the older generation are starting to die off. Finally, in the last section, Johnny is alone again, poignantly so, entering his later years but only just becoming free from his father’s tarnished legacy.
I love a good character study and don’t need a lot of action, but about halfway through, I thought the title of my review was going to be “Beautifully written, painfully dull”. I’d still describe most of the center section that way: too repetitive, too bougie, too “ugh, white people” with their going on and on about their time at Oxford and all of the Very Important People they’ve known and that everyone should know. However, it is beautifully written, as expected from Hollinghurst, perhaps more subdued and less focused than his other work, and in the last 50 pages or so, it started to come together for me so that, by the end, I found myself moved by Johnny’s search for life on his own terms.
I’m in awe of the exquisite craft it took to write a book about a character who is rarely seen, rarely a part of the action, yet always present, always influential in different ways across the span of others’ lives. I’m still unpacking all of the layers and nuances. This is a quiet book, and I didn’t realize it’s true power until I figured that out.
(vel veeter beat me to the punch by a few days, but I’m curious now to read his review and see how that adds to my own understanding.)