Before Dartmouth, before Oxford, and before the prestigious internship at a New York City literary magazine, Luca, the protagonist of Hermione Hoby’s “Virtue,” was just Luke from Broomfield, Colorado. The son of a dental nurse who spent her free time crafting wedding cake toppers and watching “Real Housewives,” Luca taught himself to shave by watching YouTube videos. He cultured himself by reading “Madame Bovary” behind the counter of his gas station job and flipping through a dusty hardcover called “Twenty Great American Painters” he found on a neglected shelf in his high school’s art room. “If I could offer you a defining image of my adolescence,” he explains, “It would be this: I’m lying on my bed with the flat screen blaring downstairs and the little Morrisey who lives in my head is plaintively singing: And when you want to live, how do you start?”
Donald Trump is elected within months of Luca starting his internship at The New Old World, Hoby’s stand-in for longstanding “legacy” publications like The Paris Review and The New Yorker. The seismic political and cultural changes that trail the 2016 election coincide with the life that Luca, at age 22, has just started to make for himself. The moral dilemma at the heart of “Virtue,” a dilemma that Hoby carves out from the beginning, is this: In an age of rapidly shifting expectations for what a good and moral life looks like, where do our obligations lie?
This distinctly millennial coming-of-age story plays out across two poles. At one end is Zara, a Black intern and activist whose blunt criticisms of the mostly white magazine intrigue Luca, but don’t sustain his attention. Through the magazine, Luca also meets Paula Summers and her husband Jason Frank, an acclaimed artist and filmmaker, respectively, whose Cobble Hill brownstone, homemade sourdough, unspeakably priced Diptyque candles, and stature in the art world represent the kind of life that he left Broomfield to seek. Ignoring Zara’s assessment that they are nothing more than “classic bougie liberals,” Luca becomes enmeshed in their lives, leaving raucous New York City protests to spend a glowing, cinematic summer at their second home in coastal Maine.
While lounging on the beach and attending several Gatsby-like parties thrown by the Summers-Frank milieu, white supremacists march through Charlottesville, Virginia, and kill a woman. Zara publishes a blistering, viral essay condemning The New Old World in which she asserts it’s time to “abolish the literary” because the magazine “refuses to acknowledge the political realities that do more harm than poetry can do good.” And the crescendo to Luca’s deceptively halcyon summer: A dramatic protest gesture of Zara’s takes an unexpected turn.
What does it mean to live your life counterfactually? What does it mean to be able to relegate the suffering of people to background noise? What are the consequences of embarking on the project of identity development while the world is falling apart?
These are the questions that Hoby wants her readers to consider, and they are inextricable from the millennial experience. Today, Luca would be 27. Soon after he learned about Earth’s great biodiversity in his kindergarten class, he probably learned about climate change. The memory of watching planes crashing into the Twin Towers on the television before school, at his age, is probably among his first and most distinct. Like many of us, his student loan debt is “epic,” and from his future narrative perch, he muses about the days between the “first and second pandemics.” Several wars overseas were the ambient noise of his childhood, and protests against fascism and police violence were the deafening signals of his 20s.
In her essay “Where Millennials Come From,” Jia Tolentino writes that millennials are “a generation [that] has inherited a world without being able to live in it.” This is true for Luca and even more so for Zara. If “Virtue” is a portrait of a young man who failed to adequately respond to the moral imperatives of his time because he was following the dreams he had always been told to follow, the tragedy for him is that he didn’t realize soon enough that dreams are a luxury and misery is not evenly distributed among his peers.
If “Virtue” is about the narrowing possibilities of art in a time of ever-escalating crisis, the question that Zara’s calls to “abolish the literary” leaves readers with is whether it is the artist’s obligation not just to represent their time and place, but to represent them correctly. Zara, whom Hoby grants an almost unimpeachable moral authority, champions a nihilistic opposition between art and justice that largely goes unquestioned. Although the manner in which Zara reaches for extremes in her arguments may lead readers to ultimately understand her as a symbol rather than a well-rounded character, her views on the purpose and utility of art represent legitimate ongoing debates borne of Trump-era cultural resistance.
Although the book’s ultimate position on this is unclear, the experiences of art in “Virtue” that inspire direct political engagement are extolled, while the more personal and aesthetic experiences of art represented in the novel are obliquely mocked — and worse, sometimes categorized as immoral. By letting one of the more interesting strands of the novel fizzle out, Hoby undercuts the nuance of what is otherwise a complex and insightful representation of millennial life.