At first I wasn’t sure I was going to end up enjoying The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. Our main character is self-absorbed, unappreciative, and on a self-destructive bender. But I was entirely wrong, because I ended up loving this book. He may be all of those, but the journey he goes on throughout the book, with his companions, is one that is much deeper – fraught with some hard truths, pirates, and character growth, that embodies the very power of writing itself.
Monty, or as he was named when he was born – Henry Montague, is expected to be a gentleman. It is everything he is supposed to be, and everything he rebels against. The latest resulting in his expulsion from the finest boarding school in England. However, his strict father gives him one last hurrah, a Grand Tour of Europe, a year of traveling around the continent, to get his rambunctiousness out of his spirit before coming back to England to manage the estate. But this Grand Tour will be unlike any other. Not only will it be full of adventure, a manhunt, and operas, but also a journey that challenges Monty, forcing him to question his love for his best friend Percy, his future, and even himself.
This book hooked my attention from the beginning. Monty is a fabulous narrating voice – extremely funny, honest, and entertaining. But as I said in the beginning, it would take more than his personality to charm me into loving the book. Monty is a complicated character, born of money and privilege, being a white man, I was naturally drawn to the other characters – Percy, his darker skinned mixed ethnicity friend, and his sister Felicity (who always has her nose in a book). So it took a while for me to warm up to actual deep love for Monty – before it’s just casual appreciation of his intellect.
But once I did, I was absolutely smitten. Monty is all of the things I mentioned, and so much more. (Also this m/m relationship is absolutely adorable to watch and it blossoms beautifully). He goes through a transformation that is absolutely precious. Hidden behind his intellect is a complicated character, a dark backstory, and a heart full of compassion and fear. His self-destructive tendencies are brutal to read, but it’s because they are so terrifyingly relatable. There is so much more than meets the surface and Lee truly takes us on a journey where we witness Monty’s growth as a person. It is one of my most favorite character-arcs in YA fiction to date. (Also his friends call him out on his privilege and Monty listens).
“‘Everyone has a rough go. I’ve had it far easier than most people.’ ‘Maybe. But that doesn’t mean your feelings matter less’” (YES! This is nuanced and just a pile of unicorns).
Additionally, I need to give some love to the other characters, my instant loves. Percy is a precious person. He is smart, a musician, and so supportive of Monty, even though Monty is, in the beginning, totally blind to the disadvantages Percy has because of his appearance and status. This is at a time of racial inequality and so Percy’s existence is not only taboo, but also dangerous. The banter between Monty and Percy is golden. They are some of my favorite conversations because of their easy-going-ness and the supportive spirit between them. And their relationship, on all levels of meaning, is just icing on the cake – unicorns in the sunset good.
Felicity is the character of my true heart. Felicity, please be my friend, I need someone in my life who is so unapologetically amazing with so much sass. Not only is she a bookworm, absolutely uninterested in how she dresses (and romance), she is so intelligent. I do not want to spoil how amazing she is, but she is quick – totally in tune to what is going on, unlike Monty – and it is so heartbreaking how limited her life is because of her gender. This book just makes you even more aware of the injustice, sexism, and racism that prevailed during that time, and still until this day. Lee transforms it for us, by giving us Monty’s perspective who is self-absorbed, but able to change.
(I also need to give a shout-out to the side characters who were beautifully crafted. They didn’t feel minor or shallow at all).
The book also embodies the inner struggle we all have, between vice and virtue, expectations and desire – and the stakes are even higher for Monty and Percy because of their sexuality. (Here is where Lee’s author’s note is absolutely phenomenal. We are treated to the historical background of the Grand Tour, medicine, slavery, and sexuality during the 1700s in Europe. It is illuminating and so fantastic to see the research behind the scenes). Sometimes the relationship between vice and virtue is more muddled than you would expect – like faces of the same coin.
And there’s just so much more. There are discussions about illness and this concept of ‘wholeness’, the rejection of love we don’t feel we are worthy of, realizing that people’s expectations of you are separate from your identity, just so many amazing themes and messages. And the phenomenal plot! It is so twisty and as soon as the piece start coming together, you are awestruck. There’s a finesse and a cleverness on a magnificent scale. It is a plot that involves alchemy, sacrifice, and family secrets and it is just so jaw-droppingly good.
This is a book that will capture you and take you prisoner until you’re done. I managed to read it all in one day, in the blink of an eye, because it is fast moving, compelling, and full of fantastic characters. There are wonderfully descriptive cities, sinking islands, and musical pieces that are said to bring back the dead. Just that sentence alone should make you want to read it. There is hopefulness for us all in this book – for accepting the love we deserve, for giving ourselves love, and for the process of growing up and acknowledging our own privilege. This book is grand on so many levels: a grand adventure across Europe, grandiose characters of heartwarming excellence, and grand themes that are precious.
(I will also confess I fully want a Felicity novel next. And, fast forward in time to when I looked on Goodreads and saw there was EXACTLY that, I am already counting down the days).
What is the last book you read that made you cry?
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