Riverhead Books | July 20, 2021
Hermione Hoby’s new novel Virtue explores the tension between reality and its framed, online representation against the backdrop of the 2016 election and the first year of the Trump administration. Like Hoby’s 2018 debut Neon in the Daylight, this book takes place in New York City, following a central character who, feeling lost and unsure of themselves, is drawn into a complicated, triangular relationship.
In Virtue, Luca is twenty-two years old with vague artistic ambitions, a stolen leather jacket, and an internship at The New Old World, a prestigious literary magazine. Originally “Luke” from a single-parent, lower-middle-class household in Colorado, Luca re-named himself after graduating from Dartmouth—“the second-least impressive of the Ivies,” and studying abroad at Oxford “to delay adulthood.” Luca is pretentious, and at times hard to like, but beneath his pretentiousness are deep-rooted insecurities about belonging. He tries to control how other characters view him and is anxious when he isn’t able to. In his role at The New Old World, he is more concerned with controlling his appearance than working at a literary magazine. He blushes in shame when he mispronounces words in conversation; he learns how to make negronis for after-work drinks to impress his coworkers. This discomfort is at times endearing, at times cringe-worthy, and through his character, Hoby captures a relatable desire to appear better than we are—to edit our lives for each of our surroundings.
At a magazine event, Luca meets the artist Paula Summers, heir to a gin-made fortune, and her husband, documentary filmmaker Jason Frank. Luca is entranced by their wealth, art, and status. Soon, he finds himself choosing Paula and Jason over his other friends, his fellow interns, and even his mom. When his internship ends, he joins the couple and their kids in Maine for the summer. Hoby fleshes out the complexity of their relationship skillfully with overheard conversations, brief moments, and fights that Luca can’t help but listen to. But it’s the other interns who are more intriguing characters, perhaps because Luca so readily shirks them off in favor of his older, more successful friends. During the group’s first day at the magazine, an editor introduces each of them based on their C.V. James and Amit, Luca dismisses as predictable and bland. He judges Jen for her cringe-worthy social media captions and, more egregiously, her open investment in them.
Zara McKing is the smartest of the interns. As Luca puts it, “She talked the least, but what she said needed no ending.” In one scene, Zara stands up to the room of editors, writers, and friends of the magazine. Zara, the only Black person in the room, suggests that their sessions spent brainstorming responses to the current administration and their support of the Black Lives Matter movement are useless. Her recommendation to publish Black writers or editors instead is ignored by the group.
When Luca is alone, he rushes to walk next to Zara or thinks about her, aware of her intelligence though more concerned with fitting in. As Luca is driving out of New York in a borrowed car to stay with Paula and Jason in Maine, he runs into Zara, who questions his attachment to this couple and their family and asks Luca to read a piece that she’s working on writing. Luca agrees, but he never reads it. His interest in Paula and Jason distracts from everything else. While he’s in Maine, Luca even turns off his phone. The result, according to Luca? “Forgetting is blissful!”
But we know that Luca didn’t forget at all. Luca is the first-person narrator of the novel, and he’s telling this story from the vantage point eleven years in the future, in 2028. By moving this narration to the future, Hoby depicts how this time is an intense turning point in Luca’s life. Luca romanticizes this time in his life as not only formative but perhaps more authentic than who he is now: “once upon a time, I was just Luca the intern, perhaps my truest identity. I still feel like a movie at life, always a step away from fucking up out of sheer, feckless stupidity.” It’s an odd remark, seeing how unsure of himself Luca is throughout the novel. But this is Hoby’s point. Luca’s truest self is unsure. He only just crosses the threshold to belonging. The older, narrating Luca is aware of his insecurities as a young adult. He shades his attraction to Paula and Jason with distaste, knowing that he found the couple too alluring, gives them too much attention for the wrong reasons.
Hoby makes it clear throughout the novel that Luca pays attention to Paula and Jason at the expense of other people and other pursuits. In doing so, she emphasizes that attention and time are finite and that this moment in Luca’s life is fleeting. When Luca shuts his phone off, he commits to posturing only for the Summers-Frank family. He misses emails and calls, as well as notifications and news. He’s focusing on where he is and who he’s with: “Deep in the slow and honeyed flow of midsummer, I shrank my world into the universe of Jason and Paula, and, in shrinking, the world seemed to grow immeasurably.” Focusing on this new, immense world where he doesn’t belong, Luca becomes wrapped up in a family and marriage that isn’t his and leaves the rest of his life behind. His attention narrows, but he forgets that the world moves on elsewhere whether we’re paying attention or not, whether he’s controlling his narrative or not, whether we’re reading it online or not. This is Hoby’s greatest achievement in the novel: she captures the struggle to balance living online and being present, of sharing a moment or framing a memory for consumption. Virtue beautifully explores the temptation to define yourself by other people’s expectations, and the risks of losing yourself in relationships where you don’t belong.