Luca Lewis, the narrator of Virtue, Hermione Hoby’s second novel, speaks to us from seven years hence. Despite mention that the world has by then suffered not one but two major pandemics, 2028 doesn’t feel much different from 2021. But Virtue, a retrospective millennial coming-of-age story, is about Luca’s life more than a decade earlier, when he was twenty-three. He lets on that the person he is today was formed by the experiences he is telling us about, and from his tone alone it is clear that his present self is an unhappy one, burdened with shame and regret.
At one point Luca looks far beyond 2028 to imagine himself in his final hours, in a hospital bed, remembering a particular moment from the summer of 2017:
not knowing then that soon a middling marriage would go by in an instant, two boys would be born and leave home before you knew it, before you knew them, and that you’d teach at the same Philadelphia high school for what felt like forever in its drudgery and like an instant in terms of what was gained.
Not that such discontent was inevitable. Luca can also imagine his dying self thinking back to another day in 2017, when it was still a time “of everything being possible because nothing bad had happened yet.” Virtue is a confessional narrative in which Luca makes his own case for how he blew it. He appears to see a lack of fulfillment as just deserts for mistakes made in his youth, for not having been a good (or at least better) man, and believes he has only himself to blame. The reader is free to disagree with him, and I do.
In 2016, when his story begins, Luca is not sure exactly what he wants to make of his life, but probably—ideally—something artistic; in any case, something far from his roots in Broomfield, the drab Colorado town where he grew up “an only child, a former fat kid, son of a dental nurse named Kimberly who ran an Etsy side hustle making customized wedding-cake toppers out of modeling clay.” This kind of description, thriftily capturing so much in a single piquant phrase, is one of the pleasures of Hoby’s writing. The mix of funny-awful is also a hallmark. “My mom’s life had been a landslide of disappointments,” Luca tells us,
chief among them my father’s departure a few weeks after my conception. Which is to say nineteen years before I too decided to leave her in Broomfield, abdicating any future responsibility for her sadness.
He attends Dartmouth, followed by a year at Oxford, where, on the very first day, he defamiliarizes Luke, the name his mother gave him, to become Luca.
The guilt he feels for abandoning Kimberly—and for his entrenched snobbishness toward her—is more than a little mitigated by her politics. She is a Fox News Loyalist. She has disdain for the needy. She votes for Romney, and worse. After Oxford, where he picks up a posh accent, Luca ends up in Manhattan, having landed, thanks to the efforts of a fellow student who composes Luca’s cover letter, a nine-month internship at “a fancy American literary magazine” that Luca has never even read. In spite of the disadvantages of his background, not to mention his current existence as a lowly intern and a tenant in a shared, crummy Chinatown apartment, Luca admits to being privileged: “Guilty until proven innocent”—meaning, of course, never—“I walked around cowed by my own cis-white-maleness.” It is this that makes his relationship with Zara McKing, the magazine’s only Black intern, consistently awkward. Much as he genuinely likes Zara, and although she is receptive to his friendship, Luca can’t find a natural way to interact with her.
“I aspired to be drawn to her righteousness, not just her beauty,” he recalls. When they are together he can never forget that he is in the presence of a superior being:
I wondered how being Black and female had enhanced whatever windfall of intelligence Zara had already been granted at birth…. Was it that women, especially Black women, attained greater insight into life through their encounters with oppression, and this made them smarter?
The magazine for which Luca and Zara work has the silly name The New Old World and is autocratically edited by an aging, boozy patrician named Byron Tancread. In his blowhardish description: “We have always positioned ourselves beyond politics…. That is our legacy. That we endure. That we are not buffeted by…the zeitgeist and so forth.” Throughout its long and venerable existence at the center of American letters, The New Old World has published scores of celebrated writers, almost none of whom have been women or people of color.
With the crisis of Trump’s election, as “a civic duty of sorts” Tancread allows The New Old World’s offices to host meetings in which concerned staff and friends of the magazine can discuss what might be done—meetings out of which no meaningful or efficacious results ever come. At a regular staff meeting, Zara’s suggestions that they invite “some smart writers, mostly writers of color” to contribute essays about such urgent issues as systemic racism, income inequality, and the climate crisis; that they reprint a famous James Baldwin interview in which he addressed America’s racism with bracingly blunt honesty; that rather than putting out, as planned, “a roundtable on resistance” they actually, for a change, “do resistance” are met with a mixture of shock, evasiveness, and excruciating discomfort. (Part of this response, it should be said, has to do with Zara’s provocative repeated use of the n-word.)
After Trump’s inauguration, Luca participates in his first-ever protest march, in Union Square. But though he sets out that day “with a new and thrilling sensation of purpose,” his zeal soon dips into melancholy. “Here among so many good, committed people, with their placards and pink hats and indignation, all so brilliantly sure of what they wanted to say,” Luca does not belong. His protest is as fake as his British accent, his Italian name, the letter that helped get him his internship. In other parts of the book, he admits to being “a fair-weather virtue guy” and ruefully mocks his kind: “We had zero experience or understanding of what practical politics meant. We didn’t know what we were doing. We felt bad and we wanted to feel good, and that was all.” For people like “us,” activism is largely performative—nothing like the life-and-death matter it is for someone like Zara. Luca will never shake the feeling that, like white Americans everywhere, he is a fraud.
Had he managed to form a tighter bond with Zara, it is implied, had he allowed himself to be led and educated by her, he might have found a way to contribute seriously to the cause of racial and social justice and to making a better world. But now a mighty temptation beckons him down a different path.
Enter Paula Summers and Jason Frank, a married couple who befriend Luca and whom he remembers all these years later as “my twin movie stars who for a moment were truly nothing less than my life.” She is an artist who has done some covers for The New Old World; he makes documentary movies. In mid-career, each has achieved the kind of success that means being interviewed by Charlie Rose and profiled in the arts section of The New York Times. But it’s inherited family money—hers—that makes them rich.
As it turns out, for Luca, the best thing about being at the Union Square march is running into Paula, whom he’d already met briefly at the office, and receiving an invitation to one of the couple’s regular Sunday dinner parties. Their house, in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill, with its artfully arranged rooms filled with beautiful objects, takes his breath away. The sumptuous spread gives Hoby a chance for some extravagance of her own:
There were ranks of Barolo on the table lined up like bowling pins and enormous bowls of pasta, a menhir of aged and crystalline Parmesan, heaps of salad slick with oil and lemon juice and sparkling with flakes of salt, and Jason’s warm, crusty sourdough passed around and torn hand to hand into sops for the olive oil arrayed in little ceramic dishes, and then plump round clementines still wearing plumage of improbably green leaves—tiny fat fruits sending up bursts of juice vapor as fingernails scored their pliant rinds…. After the clementines came walnuts to be cracked, leaving miniature shipwrecks of shells across the white tablecloth, plus shards of dark chocolate to be snapped in thin gold foil and, finally, earthenware cups of espresso spumed with a thin surf of ochre.
It may be in part because just before reading Virtue I’d read Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney’s latest novel, written in her deliberately parched, matter-of-fact style, that I took such delight in Hoby’s prose. She isn’t afraid to reach for a word like menhir to describe a hunk of cheese. Elsewhere, the smell of coffee is “cloistral,” a large spoon is “rouletted” around a pot, and a teenage girl is “recklessly freckled.” Cooking, Jason wears a dishcloth over his shoulder “chefily.” When Paula says something insincere, it’s “with a smile like a cheap and flimsy dress half slipped off its hanger.”
More than twice Luca’s age, Paula and Jason are vibrant and sexually attractive in the manner of those who can afford to maintain a high level of self-care. Luca declares himself baffled as to what his appeal to this glamorous pair might be but guesses it may have to do with his being not just young but tall and handsome and having “a curiously British accent.” And that’s not the only baffling thing. Eleven years later the question remains: “Did I want to fuck Jason? Or just be Jason and fuck his wife?” The reader is teased with the possibility that he will at some point fuck one or the other or both, that they might even have a threesome—a possibility that gathers strength after he accepts their invitation to spend the summer with them and their five children at their home in Maine.
More a member of the household than a guest—yet at the same time far from being on an equal footing with them—Luca now has a chance to observe his movie stars up close. Certain flaws of which he was already aware—egotism, hypocrisy, condescension, manipulativeness—become pronounced, and he is witness to more than one petty marital squabble. One day, the usually gregarious and extroverted Paula transforms into an art monster, withdrawing indefinitely to work in her studio, absenting herself from all social and family life, including the care of her three-year-old daughter. For once, Luca’s mother looks good to him: “My mom had never done this, even when I might have wished she would: she’d never disappeared.”
If familiarity breeds a measure of contempt, Luca remains in thrall to the couple—in particular Paula, whose dynamic personality never ceases to impress him (“No one has ever been more alive than Paula”)—and to the panache and comfort of their lifestyle. The Fourth of July parade in their Maine village includes a competition for the best float, and Paula always wins. “Winning was important to Paula,” Luca tells us. “She was a happily ruthless competitor in all things.” And, admiring her later: “[She] made art, but more than this she made things happen: excitement, beauty, a sense that wherever she was, the center of the world was too.” It is easy for Luca to still the inner voice that tells him that, whatever Paula’s and Jason’s qualities, perhaps theirs are not the highest values a person can, or should, aspire to.
Almost in the same breath that she admits “I don’t know them,” Zara judges Paula and Jason based on their type: maybe not bad, but “not that good,” and she disapproves of Luca’s going away with them. But looking back years later, Luca recalls:
I never heard either of them ever say a bad word about anyone. Not once. Yes, they were rich people—Wagyu and fiddleheads up the wazoo—so it was easy to hate them for that. But never to direct their energy into unkindness—that seemed more meaningful to me than their diet or whatever else they consumed. Did it matter that their car was a Tesla, that their candles were from Diptyque, that all their brands were rich-people brands?
To dismiss Paula and Jason, as Zara does—and as I suppose many readers will too—as “classic bougie liberals” is to ignore something important. Luca isn’t bedazzled by Paula and Jason just because they are privileged and rich. Trump is privileged and rich. Paula and Jason may be acquisitive, but they are also cultivated. They are not just consumers but creators of beauty. Jason is a diligent parent who in recent years has put aside moviemaking to devote himself to “full-time dadding.” He and Paula are as unlike the deserting father and boorish mother that fate dealt Luca as any two people could be, and their upper-class pastoral haven could not be farther from his benighted hometown.
“I’d grown up with no beauty!” Luca recalls thinking on his way home from Paula and Jason’s Brooklyn house that first magical evening. “The truth of this hit me bright and cold. I want to make my life more beautiful!—I felt the impulse as if it were a pledge—to make up for lost time, to claim all the beauty I believed was owed me.” His expectation that going to Maine will help fulfill this dream turns out to be correct. There, “it felt like everything was made of poetry.”
Not wanting his idyll spoiled, Luca tries to forget everything else, from his lonely mother to the accumulating threats to democracy hatched by the new administration. He even turns off his phone. But come August there’s no hiding from the news of the violent Unite the Right rally that takes place in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Beyond being shaken and appalled, Luca wants to know, “What could one person do?” With the insight and mordant honesty that, for all his failings, are characteristic of his narration, he goes on, “I knew already that something was better than nothing but also already anticipated that the something would often feel just so small and feckless as to make the lure of nothingness come alive.”
Nothingness in the face of white supremacy having no lure whatsoever for Zara—all but forgotten by Luca in Maine, along with “the big and ugly and untenable world of systems and suffering”—she is now a fully committed activist for Black Lives Matter. She publishes an essay, “Abolish the Literary,” in which she deplores magazines like The New Old World for being a lie based on white domination, and calling it, in Luca’s paraphrase, “a monstrous pretense…to think that culture, supposedly an affirmation of humanity, can survive its separation from the denial of humanity that is America’s racist society.”
“Zara’s piece made me miserable,” Luca confesses. Miserable about how working at the magazine “had been maddening and exhausting and depressing for Zara, and about how morally complicated and doomed everything seemed.” But truth be told, “I was mainly miserable with envy. Zara wrote so well…. She’d probably get a book deal.”
Only a week later, Zara’s attempt at a courageous and radical act of protest goes horribly wrong. The consequences devastate Luca and put an immediate end to his infatuation with Paula and Jason. In an instant, his life is changed profoundly. If, just months earlier, everything was possible because nothing bad had happened yet, this bad, this terrible thing that has happened appears to mean that now nothing is possible—despite the facts that Luca is in no way responsible and it’s unlikely that he could have done anything to prevent it.
But because Zara has disappeared for so long from the story, and also because Luca’s friendship with her has not been given the kind of development Hoby gives to his friendship with Paula and Jason, this dramatic turn lacks force. A deeper problem, though, is the character of Zara herself. Luca and Paula and Jason are skillfully drawn, each possessing a distinctive, nuanced personality and a complicated psyche, and Hoby’s gift for sensual description makes us feel we know them viscerally—down to how their pillows smell in the morning. Zara—beautiful, righteous, “conspicuously” smarter than all four of the magazine’s other interns (and seemingly everyone else), a woman of spotless integrity and heroic guts—is less an individual than a collection of merits.
“She was funny, too!” Luca tells us. And yet she doesn’t come across as particularly funny. Nor are the suggestions she makes at the New Old World meeting, though indisputably good ones, particularly brilliant or original. I wasn’t sure what to make of her producing, at twenty-two, a masterpiece of an essay that is “at several points too smart and recursive in its sentences” for Luca, a Dartmouth- and Oxford-educated man, “to follow properly,” but it would have been more convincing if some of those cerebral bits had been quoted. And would a smart political polemicist make the mistake of writing above the heads of the people?
Given our national historical moment, it seems right for Hoby to want to make Zara the novel’s moral center. But why couldn’t she be exemplary without being a paragon? For me, Luca’s hagiographic vision of Zara diminished her reality, and his bitter disillusionment and obsessive self-blame for “all the ways I’d failed her” seem to partake of a similar exaggeration:
I’d spent my summer with a pair of people who’d never really known suffering. I’d dressed up in their charisma like I was putting on borrowed clothes. And I’d walked away from Zara, who’d been my friend…. I should have stayed; I should have followed the higher impulse, the real life.
What he should have done was be born in a Sally Rooney novel. Whatever the failings of her millennial characters, and even when they assert that, given all the suffering in the world, the work they do is “morally and politically worthless,” Rooney deems them deserving of a rosy future. As one character in Beautiful World tells another, apparently in all seriousness, if people are too busy paying attention to their friends to do “more important things” such as preventing the human species from dying out, “isn’t it in a way a nice reason to die out, the nicest reason you can imagine?… Because we loved each other too much and found each other too interesting.” Isn’t it in a way pretty to think so?
Looking back, what Luca sees as his betrayal of Zara is still, to his mind, the worst thing he has ever done. And yet, at the same time, he calls the summer of 2017—in hindsight as well as when it was actually unfolding, and despite the high price to be exacted—“the happiest time of my whole life.”
If a person repents sincerely, as Luca does, shouldn’t there be a possibility for atonement? Or is giving up all his youthful hopes and dreams meant to be that atonement? If he hates himself for not having taken the higher road back then, why can’t he learn from the past and seek that road later? One of the privileges of living in a privileged society is the freedom to do the right thing. “I wanted to do something good,” he tells us, and to that end he commits himself to a graduate teaching program that will lead to employment in an underserved high school. But we know how that turns out: not so much a chance for redemption as an enduring punishment.
It wasn’t always clear to me what Hoby wanted me to feel about Luca, though I could imagine many readers concluding that he had indeed earned his life of quiet desperation. But for me to do that I would first have to erase from memory a great swath of my own early twenties with all their sins and follies, all those instances of vanity and pretentiousness, phoniness and hypocrisy, the times when I too was seduced by movie stars and forsook truer friends to go follow them, that shameful age of bad choices and shallow wants and stupid, stupid mistakes, the many times I seized the flower and left the fruit—not to mention my envy of other people’s book deals.
In fact, Luca’s present middling existence seems to me at odds with the person we’ve come to know. We’ve seen that exceptional people as different from one another as Zara and Paula and Jason saw in him someone worthy of friendship, and though he might often strike the reader as unlikable and even at times repugnant, he is never less than interesting company. Hoby has blessed him with psychological acuity and a Nabokovian eye for beauty and passion for detail. Forever tormented by fears of being a fraud, he turns out to be the novel’s most authentic and sympathetic character. For me, he is too intelligent, too curious, too sensitive to be doomed to eternal dullness.
It’s a tribute to his creator, of course, that I go on like this, and that I care. But seriously, the man is only thirty-four. Still young. Surely still tall, likely still handsome, even if now “mostly sexless and a little fat.” And he’s funny, too.