The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
From Goodreads: Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.
But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.
Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.
I’ve been wanting to read this book for quite some time now, so when Amazon flagged it up at a reduced price, I sprung into action and moved it up on my tbr list. Non-fantasy novels are an odd one for me, but I was keen on the idea of a novel centred around The Grand Tour– something aristocratic men did by travelling around Europe, looking at private collections of artwork and museum items in private showings. I also liked the idea of a hedonistic character with a lot of witticisms, and so Monty came across a little like I imagine Oscar Wilde might have done. He was very funny, and many of the one-liners and cheeky remarks made me chuckle. And then there are the awful yet hilarious situations he gets himself into– like running naked around the Palace of Versailles. How anyone can read this book without laughing is beyond me.
Each of the characters is very well developed and I liked seeing how the book didn’t hold back on some topical era-appropriate issues when it came to their ambitions and hang-ups. Monty’s sister, Felicity, is a good example. She shows a brilliant knack for medicine, and yet she’s not allowed to go to university because she’s a girl. Worse still, after demanding an education, she gets sent to a finishing school for girls in France, a place where women learn how to dress and talk and behave, and where they learn crafts like needlework. Clearly, it’s not the kind of thing she had in mind. Percy likewise stumbles into many awkward situations based on his skin colour, with many people automatically assuming he’s Monty’s manservant, or outright refusing them something they need because of prejudice. What I found compelling about The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is how clueless Monty appears to be when faced with this obvious sexism or racism. He doesn’t seem to get why Felicity is so angry he got kicked out of Eton when she can’t even attend a school like that, or why she hates the idea of the finishing school so much. Similarly, he can’t relate to Percy’s experiences of racism because he is a privileged white male. The book sees him learning how to navigate these issues, and while he doesn’t always understand, he does grow as a character and begins to try and learn from his mistakes.
The slow-build romance in this novel is also gorgeous. I could see it coming from a mile off [the synopsis does make it very clear] but I still felt all the giddy feels as Monty and Percy circled around each other, trying to figure out what they both wanted. The book handles the LGBTQ romance with a deft hand, acknowledging the views of society during the era but still managing to deliver a beautiful, heartfelt romance. It isn’t easy, and both characters scupper it several times over, but it feels organic.
I could have maybe done without the bizarre plot twist that has a bit of a fantastical element to it though. I picked up the book because it seemed like a funny, fluffy historical fiction novel, and then it brought in this slightly surreal magical plot which didn’t quite work for me. Maybe it’s just me being picky, but I thought the novel worked just fine before this weird twist came into play.
8/10 from me. I loved the humour in this book, and I liked the way the characters grew throughout the novel, exploring several significant issues, but the strange alchemy plot twist didn’t work for me.